Augusta commissioners voted Tuesday to begin buying property for a proposed judicial center on Walton Way between James Brown Boulevard and 10th Street.
Commissioners agreed to proceed with plans to build the center in that area after hearing that the land contains no environmental hazards that would impose liability on the owner or affect the marketability of the properties.
"We have an acceptable piece of property to move forward on," said judicial center committee spokesman Bill Kuhlke.
Commissioners also voted to buy other nearby parcels - one across James Brown Boulevard and several others across Fenwick Street, at a site where commissioners had once planned to build the center.
Mayor Bob Young proposed buying the triangle of land at James Brown Boulevard and Walton Way for possible use as a park and the larger tracts across Fenwick Street for overflow judicial center parking.
Commissioners also authorized further soil and compression tests and, pending satisfactory results, moving forward with design development.
They authorized former city attorney Jim Wall to obtain contracts for purchasing the properties and to negotiate necessary amendments to the contract with the architects.
One thing they did not do was put a price tag on the project - estimated to cost as much as $85 million - as Commissioner Andy Cheek said they should.
Mr. Kuhlke said the committee's proposal is to work within the money now available and that delays in settling on a site and getting started had brought a significant increase in costs, especially in concrete and steel. In addition, he was not sure whether the preliminary design includes space for the newly created public defender's office, which would add 12,000 square feet to the proposed building.
Commissioners have studied and debated sites for the center for at least five years, settling on two or three but later backing away from them for various reasons.
Mr. Cheek was dissatisfied with the lack of a price tag on the project despite Mr. Kuhlke's assurance that everything would come back before commissioners for their approval or amendment.
"I'm looking at a project that would consume 3 years of sales tax (revenues)," Mr. Cheek said.
Commissioner Bobby Hanker-son proposed to alter the judicial center plans by adding a floor for sheriff's administration and building another jail pod to house prisoners at the Phinizy Road pri- son instead of spending $9.5 million to try to waterproof and repair the Joint Law Enforcement Center.
Mr. Kuhlke said the feedback the committee had received concerning that proposal was that it was not a good idea to combine the sheriff's office and the judiciary.
He suggested that there would be space in the Municipal Building for sheriff's administration once judicial functions left.
Mr. Cheek said he visits the existing courtrooms in the Municipal Building and sees them empty on a regular basis.
"Every judge does not need a courtroom," he said. "We don't need to pay to heat and cool empty space."
Mr. Cheek said he did not want the committee to proceed without receiving a dollar amount from the commission.
"And we're going to get to that point," Mr. Kuhlke said.
"If we came back, you could tell us, and would have to cut back."
After the meeting, Mr. Cheek said he was not happy with moving forward with no ceiling on the cost.
"These businessmen on the committee wouldn't run their businesses that way," he said.
The city has about $20 million from earlier sales-tax revenues to spend on the center.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The city will negotiate contracts to buy site property while Judicial Center committee members will work on a projected size and cost for the building.
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