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County seeks bids for Courthouse renovations

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By Sean Arnold

Levy County needs a new courthouse, but the project is too cost-prohibitive at the moment.

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That’s what Paul Silverman, trial court administrator for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Appeals, found in exploring the courthouse’s infrastructure needs and the options available.

However, he concluded there are affordable short-term options available to address its pair of most pressing security needs.

Silverman provided an update to the County Commission on Aug. 22, arguing for a plan to convert a room next to the Clerk of Court’s office into a small courtroom for hearing cases from the Circuit Court in order to alleviate traffic between litigants, judges and others in the hallways between hearing rooms and waiting areas.

Silverman said there is $1.3 million available in state grant funding to put toward a new courthouse or renovations. In discussing courthouse priorities with various officials, Silverman said there’s a consensus that favors a new courthouse, but opposes spending the $1.3 million on renovations.

“I think everybody recognized (a new courthouse) was not feasible at this time, and that spending a million dollars renovating this building was probably throwing good money after bad,” Silverman said. “At some point, the county’s going to have to build a new courthouse, and the sentiment is that it would be a shame not to have that $1.3 million at that time.”

Short of a new courthouse, Silverman said the courthouse’s most pressing need is improving safety by reducing the amount of cross-traffic between people who are going before the Circuit Court, and the jurors, inmates, lawyers, judges and other litigants they often pass while while being escorted to the hearing room in the back of the building, after waiting in what’s often a crowded hallway. Silverman also said a library in the building is used as a break room, adding that it’s “just not a very professional setting, nor is it safe.”

The easiest and more affordable way to do this, Silverman said, is converting the available space into a small courtroom.

“I think we could do that fairly easily for very little money,” Silverman said.

The renovation plans became even simpler – and, prospectively, safer for the court – after Commissioner Mike Joyner suggested installing a door that would allow the judge to directly pass to and from the Clerk’s office from that converted courtroom.

Joyner said the addition would prevent having to escort a judge through the hall, where up to 50-75 litigants and litigant family and friends could be awaiting a hearing.

With Silverman and Joyner’s suggestions in mind, the Commission unanimously agreed on a resolution to seek bids on the renovations. Silverman said the county would likely not need to hire an architect for the job.

Silverman said the county also has at its resource $600,000 dollars in a court facility fund, which could be used in lieu of any of the $1.3 million grant fund. The $1.3 million must go towards a new courthouse construction or renovations, while the court facility fund has fewer strings attached, Silverman said.

No funding would come from the county budget.

The other major priority for the courthouse, Silverman suggested, is the need for an intercom public address (PA) system. There is currently no way all of the rooms and their occupants can be addressed at once in the case of an emergency, such as with a tornado warning, a bomb threat or an active shooter.

“The Sheriff (Bobby McCallum) has talked about for a while that there is no communication system throughout this courthouse,” Silverman said. “So if we had an emergency and word had to get to people, the Sheriff has no way to do that.”

The Commission passed a resolution to seek bids for a PA system, which would also be funded through the court facility fund or the previously mentioned $1.3 million.