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Santa Rosa Officials Pitch Need For New Courthouse

Photo via Flickr//E.L. Malvaney

This fall, voters in Santa Rosa County are being asked to support a one-cent local option sales tax to pay for a new courthouse and determine where they’d like it to be located. In an effort to gain support, county officials have been making the case that the existing facility in downtown Milton is outdated and needs to be replaced.

Let’s begin with the age of the current courthouse the core of the building is now 87 years old, constructed when total population was less than 14,000; the population now tops 160,000. “The courthouse was built in 1927, it’s served the citizens of Santa Rosa County well for many years. But it’s outgrown its ability to provide those services,” said Santa Rosa County Commission Vice-Chairman Don Salter. He says his biggest concern is for the safety of the 10 thousand or so county residents that enter the old judicial center on a monthly basis.

Echoing those safety concerns is Santa Rosa County Clerk of Courts & Comptroller Don Spencer, who says the courthouse staff is at risk, too.

The judges walking down the hallways among family members, whose child they may have just sentenced to life in prison. There’re divorce cases, domestic violence where they’re out there together. There’s no secure entrance for inmates to get into courtrooms; they have to walk down the hall amongst the general population in chains to get to their courtrooms,” said Spencer.

Of course, the old judicial building was not built with a security system back in 1927. Technological advancements have created a hodgepodge of wiring throughout the building, which also lacks proper heating and cooling. For example, the main courtroom often registers a temperature of 55 degrees in the middle of the summer.

According to Spencer, who has Clerk of Court & Comptroller offices in the County Administration Building down the street, SPACE is an issue as well.

“We’ve outgrown the present facility, there’s no room for growth for the additional circuit judge that we need. The clerk’s office can’t even fit in the courthouse. We’ve had modular buildings added to the back of the courthouse. The modulars have been there for about 5 years and are starting to show some wear and tear,” he said.

Santa Rosa County Administrator Hunter Walker says it’s just an old building, with old systems and old technology, and its upkeep is expensive.

Since 2003, repairs, additions, renovations, and settlements have totaled more than $3.3 million. Walker says the new construction that’s planned will be a much better value.

“Currently, with the modulars, it’ll go from about 60 thousand-square-feet now to about 150,000. So, it’ll be much more efficient and fitted for technology as opposed to cobbling together an old building. The proposed new building is expected to house everything that a court facility should have for a county the size of Santa Rosa.

It will have nine courtrooms, all with direct prisoner access, chamber and office space for court administration. It will also have space for Guardian Ad Litem, jury assembly rooms, holding rooms for custodial inmates, and a public law library. Also, it will contain office space for the Clerk of Court, State Attorney, and Public Defender.

The estimated cost of the new judicial facility is about $50 million. There have been few questions about the need for a new facility.

But, residents like Larry Sessions of Gulf Breeze want to be sure the design plan includes only what’s essential. “I moved here from Leon County and I observed the construction of two gold-plated courthouses and I’d like some assurances that we’re not going to build some sort of gold-plated facility here,” said Sessions at a recent town hall meeting at the Tiger Point Community Center.

One of those facilities being referenced is the District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee. Commissioner Lane Lynchard said board members have made their intent about the design and finishes very clear from the beginning.

“We wanted something that was very practical, very durable, low cost maintenance. We’re looking for a facility to last us another 75 or 100 years, but it’s not going to be an ornate courthouse,” Lynchard said.

Even though the building is expected to be basic, it’s still carries a price tag of  $50 million. Santa Rosa County is looking to raise that money through the proposed one-cent local option sales tax.

The tax will be collected for five years beginning in January 2015 and is expected to generate $10 million to $12 million each year. Also, the General Election ballot will include three proposed sites for building the new facility. They include a site in East Milton, a location adjacent to the current courthouse in downtown Milton, and a site on Highway 90 in Pea Ridge. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.