The mayor’s office announced that ground could be broken on he long-delayed county courthouse in a few weeks. Update: Kevin Meerschaert reminds me there’s already been one courthouse groundbreaking. Something about former Mayor John Delaney playing with a jackhammer. I guess we have to call this one a Mulligan. After being approved back in 2000 with the rest of The Better Jacksonville Plan … and $77 million already spent on what is basically a big empty lot … the project may finally go vertical.
The price is up to somewhere around $350 million on an original budget of $191. Cost overruns came from delays, skyrocketing constructions costs, and finally scrapping the entire project and starting basically from scratch. But at the end of the day, it will finally be built.
It’s not like there’s a choice. The county is required to provide courthouse facilities, and the existing courthouse would have to be greatly improved just to bring it up to inadequate. There are serious security concerns, such as the public and prisoners sharing a hallway. In the aftermath of 9/11, additional security was mandated for public buildings, adding to the cost. And the longer it dragged on, the more expensive it got.
Judges who will use the new facility were accused of wanting a “Taj Mahal” courthouse, and one was designed. The building that will be built will be somewhat more modest, but should still be a great addition to the LaVilla neighborhood where it will stand. But Worman’s Deli already can’t really handle the crowds at lunchtime. They’ll be overrun.
Through all the delays, with the economy souring, city officials are talking about the 2000 jobs building the courthouse will bring. Still, the other three vertical projects have long since been completed, and in use for several years. It seemed every time Mayor Peyton or a City Council President came on Week in Review, we asked about the courthouse. I’m sure the Mayor got as tired of answering questions about it as we were of asking … but given the amount of money dedicated to the project, people were interested. Of course, everyone hopes they’ll never set foot in the place, but they want it to be done.
The courthouse isn’t the only long-delayed Better Jacksonville project to finally be underway. An overpass carrying Kernan Road over Beach Boulevard has finally been completed … though the logic of taking Kernan over Beach … which is a major hurricane evacuation route … escapes me. Atlantic will go over Kernan, however, which makes more sense, but then they didn’t ask me.
The courthouse should be mostly shelled in and looking like a building by the time Mayor Peyton leaves office in 2011.
Announcement of the groundbreaking shouldn’t mean we should stop talking about this project. In a time of what some are calling a budget crisis, when parks, arts, and in some cases essential services are struggling for funding, we’re about to embark on building a courthouse that is expected to be $160 or so million over budget before it’s ever begun. Another spike in oil prices could drive that number higher. The city says the money is there, through Better Jacksonville funding and other bond issues. But at this point, it’s important not to unnecessarily spend another dime. It needs to be watched very closely.
It’s a good thing that this white elephant will be mostly complete by the time the next mayor carries his or her boxes of stuff the the 4th floor of city hall. Whoever that mayor is will be facing some pretty serious budget issues, from funding for city, police, fire, and corrections pensions to keeping pace with road repairs. Right now, there’s just not enough money, and property taxes will have a very difficult time keeping up the pace. So having this little item off the agenda will be just one less thing to worry about … and probably the first ribbon the new mayor will have the privilege to cut.