County approves $1.5 million in judicial complex work

BRADENTON — Plans remain on hold for $15 million in renovations to the downtown judicial complex while state leaders determine the future of local government spending via property tax reform.

Commissioners today, though, approved nearly $1.5 million in work to enclose open areas on the north, south and east sides of the old jail to store property and evidence of Manatee Sheriff’s Office. The approved project will add 12,300 square feet at the cost of about $119 million.

The centerpiece of the complex is the $75 million new Judicial Center, slated for completion in 2008. In March, county leaders learned that $15 million in improvements to older buildings would be needed to accommodate extra space for new judges assigned to Manatee by the state.

Those judges would fit in the new $75 million judicial building, but they were not expected until 2012. Their earlier arrival — along with accompanying staff, court clerks, state attorney staff and bailiffs — will create a space crunch on other departments. The clerk of court and the state attorney's office have been forced into the old Hensley Public Safety Complex next door.

The remainder of the improvements to renovate the old jail and sheriff's office, and a design for a walking bridge to connect buildings in the complex, will cost $15 million.

Deputy County Administrator Dan Schlandt told commissioners the state’s delay on property tax reform might be good, because it gives engineers extra time to design the work and allows more competitive bids to come in, which could keep costs lower.

“There’s not a very large impact on the overall schedule to delay this into July. We should still be able to do most of the demolition and heavy work while the (main) project is going on,” Schlandt said. The county would like to expedite some of the work so it can be done at the same time as the construction of the new judicial center.

“We want to save the money and get the work done while the building is open,” said Commission Chairman Amy Stein. “If we have the financial capacity to do that, we’re going to save beaucoup money to the taxpayers.”

Commissioner Joe McClash, who has served as the county's liaison on judicial center talks, said the improvements would be financed at $150,000 a year.

“Is it a good investment? In my opinion it is,” McClash said. “There should be a way to have some efficiency. This demolition is very important to do while you still have some access there, so you’re not interfering with users.”

The board is reluctant to add any costs to the new center, given their unease over tax reform which some officials say could mean a $85 million reduction to the county’s overall budget. They will make a final decision on the remaining $15 million in renovations after the state releases its property tax reform package in June.

“It’s important to point out that this is being driven by large growth and new justices that were mandated by the state,” said Commissioner Jane von Hahmann. “We legally have to provide this space. These are costs we didn’t anticipate until the state did what (assigned new judges).”