A rising caseload is creating a desperate need for more space for Augusta's judges and new offices for an expanded district attorney staff. It's incredibly inefficient, for example, that there are just two Augusta courtrooms for seven Superior Court judges, the lowest ratio on the state.
That's why, to its credit, an Augusta Commission majority recently broke a four-year impasse by voting to build a new, 10-story, 200,000-square-foot downtown judicial center.
A site selection committee will propose various locations to present to the full Commission in coming weeks. The following properties are the main ones under consideration:
Land on Greene Street to the west of the Municipal Building;
Reynolds Street city pension fund property along the river between Fifth and Sixth streets;
The Exchange Club fairgrounds between Laney-Walker Boulevard, Hale and Fourth and Fifth streets.
Since the Commission opted to build a judicial center, the Municipal Building will be renovated for city administration at an estimated cost of $12.6 million -- a figure included in the total cost of all the options.
A more accurate cost of construction on the various sites, however, must be clarified in coming days. When the city administrator on April 19 tossed out a ballpark total of $60 million for a judicial center, it immediately drew negative comments.
This project will be funded by local sales tax revenue -- if the tax is renewed by Augusta-Richmond County voters in September. So taxpayers have a right to know exactly what projects they will be paying for -- and if they are reasonable.
The Superior Court judges are already on record favoring the riverfront site, and are providing to the media their own lower figures on parking and other cost estimates.
With all due respect to the judges, however, our community must ask a salient question: What is the best possible use for this prime and scarce riverfront real estate? A judicial center that will be closed after 5 p.m. and on weekends? This prime Savannah River property is better suited for a more vibrant project that can stimulate economic activity in the neighborhood.
The site selection committee needs to look at the big community picture, especially with an eye to drawing more residents and tourists to what has emerged over the past 15 years as a Reynolds Street cultural arts corridor.
This newspaper believes the fairgrounds site, by far, to be the best location for the center -- especially since a prominent downtown church makes it quite clear it is prepared for a prolonged fight over any project being built on its Greene Street property.
After factoring in a cost of $40 million, the convenience of being nearer the Law Enforcement Center and the better parking situation -- the Exchange Club fairgrounds merit prime site consideration.