As needs grow, Howard again mulls plans for new modern courthouse

Three years ago, the state's judiciary deemed that Howard County's Circuit Courthouse needs a sixth judge.

But that judge has no space to go as the more than 173-year-old courthouse building reaches a breaking point in available space.


Local leaders have mulled tackling the courthouse space issue for more than a decade.

"We're sitting on the edge of stuff in terms of state requirements," said Jim Irvin, director of the county's Department of Works.


Cramped courtrooms fail to safely separate parties in sensitive cases. Prisoners, victims, judges and jurors walk the same publicly accessible hall. Internet is spotty and non-existent. Space is so tight in some courtrooms that the sheriff's office cut tables in half so security staff can swiftly respond to emergencies.

The granite building's last major renovations were 30 years ago. In that time, the number of cases filed has jumped by 225 percent.

In what is now a familiar pledge by local politicians to revamp the courthouse, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman plans to replace the aging building. He is exploring a roughly $128 million public-private partnership, which would be the first of its kind to finance a courthouse building in the state.

But, absent a firm timeline, skepticism abounds.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed a $315.7 million capital budget for fiscal year 2017 on Friday that includes slight bumps in funds for the school system and prioritizes transportation and public safety.

Plans for a new building have passed and died in the hands of several county executives since the late 1980s. The unwieldy price tag of upward of $100 million has halted all previous attempts.

"Everybody agrees we need a new courthouse. Nobody agrees on how you pay for it," Irvin said.

Although scheduling, work flow and space management has been mastered down to an art, administrative Judge Lenore Gelfman said the courthouse cannot wait anymore without "impeding access to justice."

"We do as wonderful as a job as can be done," Gelfman said. "We're the third branch of government. We handle serious matters … people's lives, their money, their freedom. We look to deal with those matters in a thoughtful, serious matter. Delay does not promote that."

A modern and new facility will address security concerns, Gelfman said.

Gelfman declined to publicly disclose vulnerabilities in order to preserve the safety of the facility.

Acting sheriff Lt. Donald Knott said his staff is "making the best out of a bad situation."

The sally port drops off prisoners in an unenclosed area on a public road that must be closed to maintain security, Knott said.

A path of red lights illuminates if prisoners, who share the same hall as the public, are walking through.

In temporary lock-up, staff must take "extraordinary measures" to make sure juvenile prisoners are separated by gender from adult prisoners — a state requirement that requires sight and sound separation.

Residents pushed back against a proposal for 13 houses on historic Church Road in Ellicott City. All but one of the residents oppose the development, which they say will disturb the historic nature of the area, cause stormwater runoff and raise safety issues. The planning board votes on the proposal Thursday night.

"These areas are confined, very close, very small, very close together," Knott said. "Even some of the larger courtrooms put people in very close proximity of each other."

As a result, only four courtrooms can hear criminal matters and criminal jury trials. One additional courtroom can hear a civil jury trial.

Space is tight for jurors and staff. In large cases, staff must bring in jury pools in separate sessions, a logistical dance that increase the length of trials.

Some departments have pushed out to other facilities in a scramble for space. For example, the court's land records department and part of the sheriff's office moved to the county's Dorsey building in Columbia.

The building's lone elevator for the public is too small to transport a stretcher. In the event of an emergency, the person must be carried down the stairs. Witness stands can't fit wheelchairs.

A swath of wires snake around the building's offices, around doors and through stone walls that cannot accommodate modern circuitry. The aging courtrooms are not fully equipped to handle modern legal methods of presentation, like accident reconstruction, on computer screens.

Gelfman is unsure how the court will install a new state-mandated case management system that requires electronic filing.

The system must be installed by October 2017.

Kittleman's trial

The public-private partnership under consideration by the Kittleman administration to finance the project is called a P3. The Dorsey building in Columbia, which houses other government departments, is a potential site.

In his second state of the county address, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman laid out of a four-point vision that will guide what he said has been a year of "rethinking, rebuilding, reorganizing and restructuring."

P3s allow public agencies to access private equity capital to finance projects by contracting with a private company. The tool transfers risk to the private sector and ensures the project is completed at a fixed price, but the county's budgeting staff determine how the partnership could impact funding for other capital needs.

Retrofitting the old structure with renovations and an expansion is nearly impossible, Irvin said.

"It's just a masonry structure. You really can't do anything short of closing it down and starting over," Irvin said.

The stone building is an odd motley of old and new. The 19th-century Hayden House —known to staff as the "townhome" — was mixed into the courthouse in 1988.

The building has nearly 50 air-handling units, forcing temperatures to dip and surge in different parts of the building. Although the county replaced half of them, the systems have high maintenance costs.

The building was expanded in the late 1930s, 1960s and, most recently, in the mid-1980s, when a $11.3 million expansion extended the structure to six levels.

In 2012, plans for a $9 million renovation were scuttled because of inadequate security at a temporary location in the Ascent One building in Columbia.

Between 1998 and 2006, former County Executive James Robey abandoned plans to sell two government buildings to fund a $100 million building that the county would lease back.

Others floated the possibility of building a new court house behind the current building or constructing a courthouse on the current government campus up the street.

At one point, the county even purchased land on Rogers Avenue in Ellicott City for a future site; that land was later sold.

Diane Wilson, Kittleman's chief of staff, said the courthouse project is one of Kittleman's highest priorities.

"He is committed to making it happen. He will ensure that the funding mechanism is sound and the county can afford to move forward," Wilson wrote in a statement.

Gelfman is optimistic the latest plan will go through.

"You can't throw money at this building anymore," she said. "This is not just about the jurors and the people who work here. This is about access to justice."

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