Augusta's judicial center was 15 years in making

Parents who were taking home their newborns when the idea of a new Augusta courthouse first formed are now probably dealing with teenagers eager to practice their driving skills.

 

Planning for the courthouse began when Bill Clinton was president. It took 15 years of political bickering and a taxpayer revolt before the Augusta Judicial Center and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse became a reality.

A series of events this week, including Wednesday's dedication featuring a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, will celebrate the judicial center's long-awaited opening.

The idea for the courthouse started with consolidation, Jan. 1, 1996, as the new Augusta Commission realized that combining two governments required more space than was available in the Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building on Greene Street, especially when Richmond County's Superior, State, Probate, Magistrate and Juvenile courts were thrown in.

Where and what to build for whom consumed years as the budget estimate shot from $18 million to $81 million, down to $55 million, up to $62 million and finally, without a commission vote, to $67 million.

Commission members from south Augusta wanted the city to use Regency Mall, a once-thriving commercial center largely abandoned. The legal community and the inner-city commissioners pushed for downtown. After 10 months of paralysis, the commission's Space Allocation Committee announced an expert was needed.

A year passed before Duckett and Associates, with a $90,000 study, told the commission it was going to cost at least $41.5 million to solve the space issue for the next decade -- until 2008.

The commission couldn't agree on which option to take -- renovation or building at the municipal building site, Broad Street or Regency Mall. The first plan was to move out the governmental administrative offices and leave the municipal building for the courts.

In February 2000, then-Superior Court Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. told the commission what the local judiciary wanted: a 200,000-square-foot judicial center. The commission voted 8-2 to give it to them.

The following February, the commission faced growing controversy when the cost estimate grew from $20 million to renovate the municipal building to an estimated $40 million to build a courthouse. Only $20 million in special purpose local option sales tax had been approved by voters.

The money was only part of the problem. Choosing a spot to build a courthouse became even more complicated as half a dozen sites -- from the riverfront to a lot listed on the state environmental hazard list -- were proposed and rejected.

In August 2002, the commission didn't know where the judicial center would be built or how much it would cost, but it voted to hire the architects to design it.

In April 2004, the commission voted to hire Heery International to oversee the local option sales tax projects, including a judicial center that still lacked a firm price, funding or site.

As the price hovered around $80 million, then-Commissioner Andy Cheek pleaded to put a cap on the judicial center and reduce its size.

The plan for nearly two dozen courtrooms was outrageous when the two Superior Court courtrooms in the municipal building remained empty much of the time, Cheek said.

For the first time in local option sales tax history, voters rejected the tax -- $486 million -- on Nov. 2, 2004. The largest dollar item was for a new judicial center.

On March 15, 2005, the architects presented their concept for the judicial center: 21 courtrooms; seven or 10 stories; room for all the courts and clerks in addition to the district attorney, solicitor and public defenders; and at least 420 parking spaces, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Cheeks again pleaded for a cap: "We are indeed running toward the edge of a cliff (when it came to costs). We need to ask the architects to build to the dollar amount we have available, not the other way around, which is exactly what we are doing."

Fellow commissioners thought his view was short-sighted. Augusta should plan for the future, more than one argued for the 8-1 majority.

In September 2005, commissioners broke into small groups -- bypassing the law that says public meetings must be held in public -- to gather enough votes to accept a local option sales tax package. It included $40 million for a new judicial center.

Because money had been spent from the $20 million previously set aside, the judicial center's budget was cut to $55 million.

More than two years later, on Nov. 8, 2007, the commission agreed to bump up the budget to $62 million, according to minutes of the meeting. Special purpose local option sales tax investment funding was grabbed to beef up the judicial center's budget.

By Jan. 18, 2008, the budget was $3 million more, and by May 20 was up an additional $2 million. According to online minutes of the commission meetings, commissioners did not vote on the increases.

On April 11 of this year, the judges began moving into the $67 million courthouse, and on May 2, they held hearings there for the first time.

Augusta attorneys say new location has drawback
Limited parking at judicial center poses problem
A weeklong celebration

Key events connected to the opening of the new Augusta-Richmond County Judicial Building and John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse include:

- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will speak at the courthouse's dedication at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

- Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham and Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge John J. Ellington will speak at a ceremony honoring Ruffin at 4 p.m. May 22. Courthouse tours will begin at 2 p.m.

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