by ROCCO & JULIE B. MAGLIO
On January 18, 2019, the Hernando County Board of County Commission (BOCC) received a “Confidential” Unsolicited Proposal with Application Fee from a private entity pursuant to F.S. 255.065 (Chapter: Public Property and Publicly Owned Buildings – Section: Public-private partnerships; public records and public meetings exemptions).
There have been requests for additional space for a number of years. The county contracted with CGL Companies to conduct a space needs utilization assessment in 2016. The initial cost estimate from CGL Companies was between $100 and $130 million for a new county government center. The amount of the current unsolicited bid is confidential since other companies may also make bids.
County Attorney Garth Coller explained in May 2018, “The standard under law is that you’ve got to provide reasonable space. That is obviously going to be subject to different interpretations by the courts and this board. This board does get to make that decision.” If the County Commission deems that the judges have adequate space then that is the case. This makes sense since the County Commission is the body that levies the taxes or comes up with alternate sources to pay for the building(s). The commission is the body that is responsible to the voters for the taxes raised and therefore is vested with power of deciding what represents adequate space.
In May of 2018, the County Commission received a letter from Fifth Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Sue Robbins from Marion County. The letter stated that the county should build a new county government complex as defined by the Space Needs Assessment CGL Companies report.
In January 2018 the BOCC voted to move forward on a less expensive option (approximately $14.9 million) to meet the court’s space needs- through a renovation of the Pinebrook building and the construction of a separate building for constitutional officers. Pinebrook is a county owned building which was leased to Bayfront and is subleased to medical professionals.
Judges were present at the meeting where the BOCC voted to pursue the Pinebrook solution.
Judge Daniel Merritt stated,
“I really don’t have anything to add at this point that the judicial branch has not otherwise added or told you about for the last 16 years. We are in favor of anything that will provide all of us, including the constitutional officers, some additional space. The study that was done last year- certainly in the judicial branch’s opinion- that is the longer term more appropriate resolution, looking forward 30 years, but I understand the fiscal issues that are at play. So this seems to be a way to try to obtain space for everybody…”
The process to facilitate the relocation of physician medical offices from Pinebrook was initiated at the end of 2017. In October 2017, physicians asked for at least a year to relocate. According to county staff, the 5 medical practices in question still remain within the building along with the VA.
In May the county received a letter from Judge Robbins which urged the county to undertake the new government center option without mentioning the Pinebrook renovation. Referring to Judge Robbin’s letter, the County Administrator at the time Len Sossamon warned the board May 22, 2018, “It’s not a direct court order, but I think it’s about one step short of that.”
Sossamon explained the county’s legal department is looking into whether impact fees could be used “to do the upfits for the Pinebrook facility.”
He outlined the following,
“If we’re able to do that then it’s a source of revenue we could use to upgrade Pinebrook and then start the removal process of the BOCC functions from this building over to Pinebrook. Then that would allow for the accommodations to be met that are outlined in Judge Robbins’ letter.”
Champion remarked, “We already made a decision and we told the judges we were going to do the Pinebrook thing,” Champion said. “We have to figure out how to get it done. I’m scared they are going to force us from what counsel says and then we’ll be stuck like chuck if we don’t have a plan. I think we need to move forward with Pinebrook.”
Len Sossamon did mention Judge Robbins’ reference to the CGL Companies report in her letter,
“Another caveat that I’m a little unclear of… on page 2, she does mention the CGL Companies study that was done, which actually addressed the issue of building an entirely new courthouse- which I know will be something on the order of $100 to $120 million versus the alternative that we came up with.”
Judge Robbins statement is as follows:
“Therefore, based on the foregoing, I, as Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, and pursuant to Florida Statute Section 318.18 (13)(A)(2), hereby certify the immediate need for a Court Facility Construction Project. This should be built according to the long-term plan contained and detailed as part of the CGL Companies January 2017, Hernando County, Florida Space Utilization & Courthouse Needs Assessment Interim Report. This is necessary to address the unexpected growth in Juvenile Delinquency and Mental Health caseloads in Hernando County as well as the added responsibilities of the Risk Protection Orders and Injunctions for Protection of Vulnerable Adults.”
She is using the term should, so it would appear she is directing the county to undergo the “$100 to $120 million project” but not as strongly as if she had used the terms ‘shall’ or ‘must.’
Chairman Champion stated in response to the Judge’s direction, “The alternative sounds a lot cheaper. To move us out and make this all just court.” He asked County Attorney Garth Coller, “And that would be sufficient?”
Coller explained, “The standard under law is that you’ve got to provide reasonable space. That is obviously going to be subject to different interpretations by the courts and this board. This board does get to make that decision.”
That would mean the decision is up to the commission as to what is reasonable space for the judges. This would make sense since the commission is responsible for funding the judges’ space.
“There is not a lot of appetite for a $110 million courthouse I can tell you that,” said Champion.
Champion remarked that the letter was probably a result of them committing to the Pinebrook project and then hesitating due to budget issues.
“They don’t trust us to make the right decision. I don’t blame them,” he said.
“We don’t take possession of the Pinebrook building until late this year (2018) – September/October. There’s still 5 physicians there, plus the VA. The VA occupies 10,500 square feet of the 42,000 square foot building. The VA has told us that they’d like to build a new facility, but it’s going to take them two or three years. I think we can co-habitate. ‘We’ meaning the BOCC functions with the VA. Jeff and I have met with them several times and they’ve indicated their willingness for us to proceed in any demolition we need as well as reconstruction while they are occupying and seeing clientele.”
Champion asked why they couldn’t move forward on the building immediately.
Deputy County Administrator Rogers stated, “We do have an architect working on a scope of services cost to have a design to remodel the building. We are moving forward on the Pinebrook Building.”
In regards to the current county courthouse, Sossamon offered, “We’ve had an architectural firm take a look at the east side entrance – the steps- making that more pedestrian friendly by removing those steps and making the entrance at the ground level… Those improvements based on my discussion with Judge Merritt and his admin assistants in the court system- they have what’s called a judicial improvement fund and we can use those judicial improvement dollars for those types of operations.”
As far as the 5 physicians still remaining at Pinebrook, Sossamon stated,
“Because they did not move out expeditiously, those funds (for moving costs) are no longer available. ” The county was willing to provide up to $4,000 for moving expenses along with a rent subsidy for up to $1.50 per square foot through the term of each lease which would have been a $54,818 expense in total.
Fast forward to January 2019. The county receives another letter from Judge Robbins as well as an unsolicited bid for the construction of a new county government center. The Hernando Sun obtained a redacted version of Judge Robbins’ letter dated Jan. 28, 2019.
Len Sossamon stated, “The one (letter) we just got actually outlines… a number of items that you are aware of- it’s talking about security cameras system update, creation of secure corridors, installation of judicial elevator, second floor courtrooms J, K, I; first floor courtroom H, and also a new entry, exploratory planning and expansion of the sallyport holding cells into the current areas utilized by facilities on the ground level… The timeline of those improvements starting off with security cameras system update is July 1, 2019 and that’s the estimated completion time. That’s not start date… and every other item I just mentioned to be completed no later than July 1, 2022- or essentially 2.5 years from now.”
Sossamon then provided his recommendation,
“I think what we need to ask the board to do today on this item is to receive the unsolicited proposal to build a new governmental center that would be able to extract all of the BOCC functions from this building along with our clerk of court options that deal with finance because they are our finance department along with our SOE (Supervisor of Elections), our tax collector and property appraiser. If that is done then we can take 30 days or so and review it- come back to this board and tell them whether or not it makes any sense and if at that point in time we tell them that it does make perfect sense, then they recommend that they authorize us to proceed with solicited proposals on the same level playing field which this unsolicited proposal was received.”
Sossamon said that the solicitation process for additional proposals would be somewhere between 45 and 120 days.
“I think if we don’t show forward progress, we’re going to get another letter to expedite the process from Judge Robbins,” he worried.
Commissioner Champion stated, “We have to at least look at this- from what I understand they can force us to do something about this.”
Coller made a similar statement to his May 2018 remarks, “We are required to provide adequate and necessary space to the judicial system.”
Interestingly Sossamon seemed to indicate that the unsolicited proposal has been approved by Judge Robbins and Judge Merritt:
“It does say that as such the aforementioned plans have been approved by herself as Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit and Daniel Merritt Jr., the Administrative Judge for Hernando County. They are doing all of this based on Commissioner Champion’s question about forcefulness if you will. They are actually telling you this is what their plans are. They meet the needs of the citizens as set forth in the letter from Judge Robbins. I think to delay is our enemy.”
The Hernando Sun confirmed with Public Information Officer Virginia Singer that Judge Robbins and Judge Merritt approved the unsolicited bid. The judges have indicated their preference as to what bid to accept, but the final decision is left to the County Commission as they are the body that is responsible to fund the decision.
The pressure applied by the judges is working in their favor. Deputy County Administrator Rogers made the following statement:
“Past direction of the board was to remodel Pinebrook and build a constitutional building at the Pinebrook Government Complex. Staff, in looking into that building (Pinebrook), we believe it’s probably not the most cost effective thing if the county is to remodel that building. We would like to look at this proposal and compare it against the cost of us remodeling the building there and building a separate constitutional building… The other issue I’d like to point out, about the Pinebrook Building, as we continue to look at that becoming a government building, since we got that direction last year, I will tell you the access there we might have overlooked that a little bit. I would probably have to recommend against using that building because just of the access now. Even though we recommended before, the access there would require u-turns for everyone to get in and out of that building- thus we’ve been looking at alternate sites to move forward for the government in the future. In the future, we’ll have to pay either a lease or a bond to pay for this.”
Rogers asked the board to consider a temporary sales tax to pay for the improvements.
“That way not only are the property owners paying for it, but also the visitors.”
Dukes made a motion to look at the proposal. Allocco provided a second, the motion passed 5-0. The cost of evaluating the unsolicited bid is the responsibility of the the bidder, so examining the bid will not cost the county at this point.
Letter From S. Sue Robbins, Chief Judge Fifth Judicial Circuit dated 1/28/19:
RE: HERNANDO COUNTY COURT FACILITY CONSTRUCTION PROJECT IN
ACCORDANCE WITH ARTICLE V
Dear Chairman Holcomb:
The Hernando County Judiciary, in consultation with Mason Blau & Associates, has completed a space needs audit and planning study for current and future judicial needs inside the Hernando County Courthouse. The audit and planning study was conducted to comply with the Chief Judge’s responsibility to regulate court facilities and ensure the prompt and effective administration of justice, pursuant to the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration 2.215.
The audit uncovered the following four (4) issues that require attention: 1) Court Security; 2) Secure movement within the courthouse; 3) Additional Court Rooms; 4) Sally*Port and Holding Cell update and expansion. A five phase plan has been devised to address each of the current shortcomings. The Phases are staged to address the needs in order of priority. The Plan and the specific phases are as follows and detailed below:
PHASE I: [REDACTED] AND SYSTEM UPGRADE
PHASE II: [REDACTED]
PHASE III: 2nd FLOOR COURTROOMS (COURTROOMS J, K, AND I)
PHASE IV: 1st FLOOR COURTROOM (COURTROOM H AND THE NEW ENTRY)
PHASE V: EXPLORATORY PLANNING AND EXPANSION OF SALLY PORT I HOLDING CELLS INTO THE CURRENT AREAS UTILIZED BY FACILITIES ON THE GROUND LEVEL
Therefore, I, as Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, and pursuant to Florida Statute Section 318.18 (13)(A)(2), hereby certify the immediate need to continue this Court Facility Construction Project. This project should commence with haste. A complete upgrade to security measures, including [REDACTED], is the top priority. The phasing for this project will be directed by the construction team and allow for continued use of the court facilities by the courts during construction. Regular audits shall be conducted by the Hernando County Administrative Judge or his designee to ensure sufficient progress has been made.
PHASE I- [REDACTED] AND SYSTEM UPGRADE [REDACTED]
PHASE II- [REDACTED]
PHASE III – 2ND FLOOR COURTROOMS (COURTROOMS J, K, AND I). With eight (8) full-time Circuit and County Judges in Hernando County as well as a General Magistrate and Child Support Hearing Officer, it is also essential that additional courtrooms be developed promptly.
PHASE IV – 1ST FLOOR COURTROOM (COURTROOM HAND THE NEW ENTRY). This phase will provide an additional courtroom on the first floor. It will also include the addition of more handicapped parking as well as a more user-friendly entrance that will permit citizens increased ease of access to the courts. This phase is also in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act pursuant to 29.008(l)(a).
PHASE V – EXPLORATORY PLANNING AND EXPANSION OF SALLY PORT I HOLDING CELLS INTO THE CURRENT AREAS UTILIZED BY FACILITIES ON THE GROUND LEVEL.
The above plan meets the needs of Hernando County’s citizens, the judiciary, and the spirit of my letter dated May 14, 2018. As such, the aforementioned plans have been approved by myself as Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, and Daniel Merritt Jr., as Administrative Judge of Hernando County.
The court appreciates your continued support and shared vision to resolve the court space needs for the citizens and litigants in and for Hernando County. I look forward to your swift and decisive action to achieve the necessary goal.