Expansion plans for the Glynn County Courthouse will likely be broken up into phases due to the large expense involved.
At a meeting in May, Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett spoke to the Glynn County Commission about a serious lack of space in the courthouse.
“I will make it clear, we are not in a crisis but we are stressed,” Scarlett said in May. “... Any court or court office or clerk’s office at the courthouse will tell you they’re in great need of space.”
The courthouse will have to expand in the long term, he said, as the county isn’t getting any smaller.
Given the anticipated cost — some estimates as high as $50 million — the only way commissioners could see to fund the project would be with the special-purpose, local-option sales tax.
The commission ultimately appointed a committee of five people with relevant experience to come up with an educated recommendation on how to proceed.
“I think the court has made a very credible case to us, and I think to the commission as well in terms of the current state,” committee chairman Ralph Basham, former FLETC director, said at the committee’s meeting on Thursday. “It’s fairly clear to me, in my opinion, that this needs to be addressed. The question is, what is the next steps.”
So far, the committee has held two meetings and gone on one tour of all court facilities to get a good feel for the problems the various courts and their administrative personnel have and possible solutions.
Committee member Wayne Bennett has a long history in security, so Basham asked for his thoughts.
“The second floor in the current courthouse is really a safety issue because the transportation of inmates from the courtroom to the holding cells, and then judges having to interact with inmates in the hallway, that’s not very good,” Bennett said. “... The way I see it is we all agree to that, and what we can come back to (the county commission) with is the priorities.”
Committee member Jack Hartman said the only way to really go about it would be to do it in phases, even if only because voters may not like the idea of doing it all at once.
“We do need another building, and it’s going to be up to the county commission to decide on the size of the SPLOST, and how much can be committed to this political endeavor. Personally, if you put $50 million on there, I don’t think you’re going to get any SPLOST, and then everyone will be out of business,” Hartman said.
“You start saying we’re going to do a $100 million SPLOST, and we’re going to do a $50 million courthouse, most people are naive enough to think ‘My goodness, the courthouse is brand new, why do they need anything.’ They don’t know. How do you convince people? I think you’re going to have to go in for whatever you can do to start the process.”
Basham said a discussion he had with architect and fellow committee member John Tuten led to the idea of putting together a master plan for the expansion. The county could put more money into fulfilling the master plan over time.
“I think John had a very reasonable approach when we were talking about a master plan,” Basham said.
The committee asked Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley to weight in.
He said he couldn’t speak for Scarlett, the chief judge, but he agreed with everything the committee proposed.
“I’ve always been skeptical of $50 million figure, I think that’s way too much,” Kelley said. “I think the $40 million figure in the Heery (courthouse space needs) study was the Mercedes. I mean, it’s everything. Well, since that time, the District Attorney’s office has remodeled their whole floor up there and they don’t want to move. If they don’t want to move, and they’ve got everything they need for years to come, we can take that out.”
For $21-22 million, he estimated the county could double the size of the courthouse.
The county has some flexibility in that it can move some offices out of the courthouse to make space for new courtrooms, but eventually the county will need a new building, Basham said.
“At the end of the day it’s really going to require a new facility built to accommodate future needs,” Basham said.
While the committee was unanimous in the opinion that the courthouse could be expanded in phases, Bennett brought the discussion back around to the security issue.
“Develop that master plan, and I would like to see some of the security issues dealt with in the short term,” Bennett said. “Do something about the security issues, and then come back and address the future needs. And that master plan would address the future needs.”
Murphy said he couldn’t see where the commission would get the money for even a short-term security fix.
“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t come back and address that issue and say ‘we think there needs to be something done in the short term,’” Basham said. “Obviously, there’s no magic wand to come up with the funding, but we were asked to come in and look at this and give our assessment of what the current state of affairs is and what we would recommend moving forward.”
Bennett minced few words when talking about the security problems in both the courthouse and the Office Park Building.
“For instance, (Glynn County Juvenile Court) Judge (George) Rountree is about this far away from the parking lot. He’s taking some kids away from parents because they needed to be, and I could walk up there and blow his head off without even entering the building. And he’s sitting there at night working at his desk. That’s ridiculous, I mean it’s a miracle somebody hasn’t killed somebody,” Bennett said.
While some security flaws could be addressed immediately, many are going to have to happen concurrently with future expansions, Basham said.
“In order to fix the security issues, the space needs are going to have to be addressed,” Basham said. “There are two bathrooms available to both the public and to the people that are actually sitting in court and the judge is facing, and he may be standing next to them in a restroom. It’s more than just security, it’s going to have to be hand-in-glove with those issues.”
Murphy suggested the committee speak with Heery’s architects to see what the county could get for $10 million, $20 million and $30 million. After that, the committee could then speak with the judges to determine the minimum they could get by on. Tuten said he’d try to find out who created the study and set up a meeting between the architect or architects and the committee.