Court officials ask council for new courthouse

Howard County's 19th-century courthouse has seen a 40 percent increase in jury trials in the past year, causing court officials to clamor for a new facility.

"Our county is growing, our population is growing, and that means more case filing," said Administrative Judge Lenore R. Gelfman. "The demands have been significant for a while."

Gelfman, County State's Attorney Dario J. Broccolino and Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald told the County Council last week that the increase is too much for the 170-year-old Ellicott City courthouse, which is cramped and outdated.

"We're at the limit," Broccolino said at council work session last week.

"You need to look into building a new courthouse," Fitzgerald said.

There is money in the county's capital budget to renovate the courthouse, but those plans are up in the air. A spokesman for County Executive Ken Ulman, Kevin Enright, said there are no plans for a new courthouse.

In February, the county decided to scrap plans to temporarily relocate the court to the Ascend One building in Columbia during an $8.5 million renovation of the old courthouse. The county spent about $1.3 million remodeling the Ascend One space, then concluded that it could not be made secure enough to for court proceedings. The health department will use the space instead.

Gelfman said a committee of county and judicial officials is looking into what renovations should be made to the current eight-room courthouse. Previous plans called for expansion of the juror waiting area, a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, an upgrade to courtroom technology, rewiring to meet the county code and a new elevator to improve handicap access.

"There's discussion as to whether there is going to be a new courthouse, an extension," Gelfman said. "Certainly, we would like a new courthouse."

The courthouse has long been cramped and provides little space for growth. The state's attorney's office is not located there, and much of the clerk's office, such as land records, is in different locations. Prisoners often pass judges' chambers to get to a courtroom — a potential security risk.

Additions were built to the courthouse in 1988. It was used as county offices until the 1970s.

The inadequate courthouse has become the target of jokes in the legal community. In a 2005 column, the then-president of the Howard County Bar Association, Timothy J. McCrone, wrote of his "recurring holiday wish for a new circuit courthouse. It is not a selfish wish for I am sure it is shared by one and all who work in the present courthouse, those whose offices should be located in the present courthouse, and those who have business with the courts and the offices therein."

Under the previous county executive, James N. Robey, plans were made to build a new county government office complex, including a new courthouse. Ulman decided, however, that the estimated $250 million cost was too much, especially during a recession.

At Wednesday's work session, Gelfman and others said the need for a new courthouse has not gone away.

"The new development, BRAC [military base relocation] — that brings in people," Gelfman said. The increase in population has moved Howard County to a point where it qualifies for an additional judgeship. But before that can happen, she said, the court has to certify that it has space for the judge, the clerk and other positions.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said, "I think we should carefully analyze the current site to ensure that we are safely and effectively doing our job."

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