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Fasano probes cost of First DCA’s new home

Senior Editor Regular News

Fasano probes cost of First DCA’s new home

Senior Editor

Saying taxpayers’ money is being wasted, a state senator is launching an investigation of the construction costs of the First District Court of Appeal’s controversial new courthouse in Tallahassee.

Sen. Mike Fasano Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is the new chair of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee. He said the committee will look at how the $48 million project came about and why it included such features as extensive African mahogany woodwork, marble countertops, and large flat screen TVs in every judicial chamber.

The building is way too elaborate for a structure that will rarely be visited by the public, Fasano said.

“I don’t have the authority to punish anyone, but I can get the information out and let the taxpayers know what transpired and why, and make it very clear that this will never happen again under our watch,” he said.

“To me, from the outside, it looks that any supreme court justice in any state could only dream about having this as their office. It really looks like a Taj Mahal. Why would we use taxpayer money to build a facility like this when it could have been built much differently at a lot less cost to the taxpayers?”

Fasano said the investigation will look at all aspects of the project, including how it was approved on the last day of the 2007 session in an amendment to a transportation bill, in such a way that almost no lawmakers realized what they were voting on. It will also examine how the building became so ornate, whether some First DCA judges improperly assumed authority over the construction project, and how the new courthouse will be paid for.

Capital projects for appellate courts typically have been funded directly by the state, and the district courts and Supreme Court occupy the facilities without paying rent. But the new First DCA was done through a bonding program under the Department of Management Services, which will charge between $1.7 and $2.2 million annually in rent over the 30-year life of the bond. That money will be part of the court system’s overall budget and has drawn criticism at a time other courts around the state have laid off employees.

The payments are also less than about $2.5 million needed annually to pay off the bonds, with the shortfall being made up from surplus rent payments from other agencies.

“That’s another part of what I’m going to be looking at as chair of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee. Where is the money coming from to pay these bonds? Is it coming from other parts of the justice system, where they need this money to keep their courts running?” Fasano asked.

He added, “I want to have somebody from the court administration explain what they may know about this. I certainly want to have someone from DMS to come in and explain their side of the story, and I certainly want to find out about the appropriations side of it.”

Bar President Mayanne Downs has said the controversy over the new courthouse should be divorced from the need for adequate funding for the overall court system — a sentiment Fasano endorsed.

“I certainly hope not,” he said when asked if the issue could affect funding for the courts. “My concern is we have many circuit courts and many county courts that are struggling.”

Fasano said he hopes the committee can take a preliminary look at the First DCA courthouse issue when it meets December 7 (after this News went to press) and then have a more in-depth examination at its January meeting.

In a related matter, First DCA Judge Paul Hawkes, who lobbied intensively for the new courthouse, sat on the court’s Building Committee that oversaw plans for the new building, and who has defended the project, resigned as the court’s chief judge last month. That was seven months before his term was to end. Hawkes, who remains on the court, was replaced by Judge Robert T. Benton II.

Hawkes did not comment to the press on the reason he stepped down early. In a Tallahassee radio interview about the new courthouse, Hawkes was initially unclear on the resignation, but later called back and clarified that Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady had asked for his resignation as chief judge. Canady, in response to media inquiries, released a brief statement saying, “I respect Judge Hawkes’ decision.”

Fasano made a reference to judicial involvement in the courthouse project, saying, “I would encourage those in the judiciary that they spend more time dealing with their cases than coming to the Capitol and lobbying for future Taj Mahals.”

The First DCA project was the subject of a critical audit by Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, but DMS officials and Hawkes have said many of those findings were exaggerated or in error.

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