Originally created 08/07/99

Courthouse annex still going up



A year ago Jim Whitehead made a promise.

As chairman of the Columbia County Commission he told taxpayers a courthouse annex would be built for $11 million. Despite new construction estimates of $14.6 million, he intends to keep his word.

Now the judges and other officials who will use the building are being asked to review a list of $3.4 million in proposed cuts, including a plan to reduce the 81,000-square-foot building by 17,994 square feet.

County Administrator Steve Szablewski, who has held several closed-door meetings with elected officials in efforts to scale down the project, said a variety of factors, including inflated labor costs, are to blame.

"If it was any one thing, I think it would be easier to solve," he said.

Mr. Szablewski said he closed the meetings to the public and media because he did not want to inhibit the free flow of ideas. The sessions did not include a quorum of commissioners and were not legally required to be open, he said.

Mr. Whitehead, one of the elected officials allowed to attend the meetings, said the closed-door discussions have been spirited.

"I'm not going to say it has been hunky-dory or icing on the cake, but the thing we've got to understand is there is going to be a lot of people who are not in the courthouse in Appling, so we've just got to find a way to make it work," he said.

For example, the new annex will have space for juvenile court and magistrate court -- both of which are now housed in the Evans Government Center. The annex will be erected on a 16-acre lot next to the government center on Washington West Drive.

Part of the county's judicial system -- including the probate court and the superior court -- currently operates out of the 150-year-old courthouse in Appling, which county officials say is inadequate to handle the case load.

The existing courthouse is arguably the oldest still in use in Georgia, with records dating the building to 1812.

Now county officials plan to revise the annex project to conform to initial costs and provide a quality facility.

"Then we'll bid it, and if it comes in too high, then we're just going to have to reject all the bids and we'll have to find some way to fit it into the $11 million budget," Mr. Whitehead said.

In 1998, Columbia County voters agreed to a 1-mill tax increase to fund $28.5 million in bonds to pay for both the courthouse annex and the expansion of the county's jail.

Some officials think the new building will be sufficient, even with cuts being made.

"They've moved it around three or four times, but the last time I looked, mine was adequate," said Probate Judge Pat Hardaway.

"Everybody is a little concerned that it won't meet the county's needs for the next 15 years," she said, adding there are also questions about parking. "Since the square footage has been reduced from the original estimation, we're all just genuinely concerned."

The annex also will leave the Tax Commissioner and Tax Assessors office -- and their records -- in Appling.

That means people who need to check actual records may have to go to Appling and Evans for documents, the judge said.

Chief Magistrate David Huguenin is concerned because his courtroom is likely to be reduced by 32 seats. The original design included an 88-seat courtroom for Magistrate Court, which handles civil and domestic matters and county ordinance cases.

"We have more room in the government complex, where we hold court now, and we sometimes have standing room only," he said.

Brian Stutts, an intake officer with Columbia County Juvenile Court, said he will be happy with whatever space he gets.

"We haven't been designated a specific courtroom, but that doesn't bother us," said Mr. Stutts.

"Our courtroom now in the Evans Government Complex has between 30 and 35 seats, so even the smaller rooms in the new facility will be an improvement," he said. "We are crowded now, and this courthouse is projected for the next 15 to 20 years out. We need every square inch they can give us."

Staff Writers Robert Pavey and Scotty Fletcher contributed to this article.

Jason B. Smith can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 115, or jbsmith@augustachronicle.com.