Circuit Court's temporary relocation to Columbia called off

A plan to temporarily relocate Howard County Circuit Court, a move that had previously been postponed, now has been abandoned entirely.

"I could not compromise on public safety," said Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, the court's administrative judge. "I want to make sure, to the best of my ability, that anybody who comes here ... has an expectation of reasonable security."

That safety and security, she said, could not be guaranteed in the temporary headquarters, the county-owned Ascend One building on Stanford Boulevard in Columbia.

Gelfman declined to reveal what those specific concerns were, though she did say that the cost of providing the security the building would have needed was "prohibitive."

The Howard County government had spent approximately $1.3 million on preparing the Ascend One building for the court's relocation, which would have lasted 18 to 24 months and allowed for a renovation project at the historic Ellicott City courthouse to begin.

An additional $410,000 in changes would have been needed — not including the increased cost of providing around-the-clock security for the building, according to county government spokesman Kevin Enright.

County government and court officials mutually agreed not to go forward with the move.

The agreement between the county and court had come under a past administrative judge, Diane O. Leasure. After Leasure retired, county officials met with Gelfman to go over the plans.

"She had a different concept for how the building should be set up," Enright said. "We worked with her to try to accommodate the drawings and the plans, but in the end we both agreed that it didn't seem feasible under what she needed and what could be provided."

The county government purchased the Ascend One building in 2011 for $26 million. The county had been renting space for $1.6 million a year since 2008. Now, Ascend One is paying the county more than $1.1 million a year and is in the first year of a five-year lease.

Had the court moved to the building, the security measures could have allowed Ascend One to terminate the lease, costing the county $4.5 million, Enright said. In addition, the county Health Department had been slated to move to the building in July 2013 but would have needed to stay in its space on Columbia Gateway Drive for another year, costing the county $1 million.

Offices used by the county Board of Education, as well as the government's information technology and human resources departments, will remain for the time being, he said.

Of the money that had been spent on preparing the building for the court, approximately $275,000 was in communications and security equipment that will be used at the courthouse, Enright said.

Also, he said, "Many of the changes and alterations that were made to this building will fit the needs and physical layout that the Howard County Health Department will require when they move into the facility."

Gelfman said some renovations will still be done at the Ellicott City courthouse, though not the full $8.6 million that Enright said had been slated for new heating, air conditioning, technology and ventilation systems.

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