Howard County Council supports landmark courthouse contract

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The Howard County Council has given its support to a public-private partnership plan for a new $140 million courthouse in Columbia.

Councilman Calvin Ball was the lone opponent to a contract for the project that the five-member council reviewed and approved Friday before going on summer break.

Ball, who is a Democrat running in November for county executive, said he wanted more time for the council to work out concerns with a long-term contract that is expected to cost the county more than $300 million over 30 years.

All council incumbents are leaving their seats in December and Ball took issue with voting on a project that a new council would inherit. Ball also said he was uncomfortable with the site-selection process and a lack of public awareness of the project’s details.

The courthouse, planned on county-owned land on Bendix Road, would replace a nearly two-century-old building in Ellicott City. The project has been championed by Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman and follows a national trend enlisting the private sector to help build major public projects, reducing a local government’s upfront costs.

"While I definitely agree that 70,000 feet and a 175-year-old courthouse is inadequate, I’m still unsure that when we just finished having an intense budget conversation not long ago about inadequate capital investment in our school buildings and school overcrowding, that almost 240,000 square feet is the right scope for this project,” Ball said.

"I strongly feel that this bill at this time isn’t what’s best for our county, and while I was willing to give the administration a great deal of latitude, I think we can do better," Ball said.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa emphasized how the new courthouse wasn’t something the county wanted, but needed.

“It’s about justice, it’s about safety. A lot of times we don’t think of the courthouse as something we need — but when we need it, we need it,” said Terrasa. “There’s not time for this.”

Earlier in the month, the chairwoman of the council, Mary K. Sigaty, had raised questions about terms of the contract, which is expected to be awarded to a private consortium that will finance, build and operate the building for three decades.

Kittleman applauded the council’s approval, saying in a news release that the project is long overdue and has been discussed for more than 20 years.

"We cannot adequately provide for the county’s judicial needs with the current facility and are looking forward to moving ahead with this exciting project,” he said.

In response to Ball’s concerns, Kittleman said no one could "argue this wasn’t the most transparent process probably in the history of Howard County."

The courthouse would be at the site of the Thomas Dorsey Building, which would be torn down. Construction of the 237,000-square-foot courthouse is expected to start in August 2019 and be completed by summer 2021.

Edgemoor-Star America Judicial Partners was selected from several bidders to manage design, construction, maintenance and facility operations for 30 years. The consortium also would provide some financing. After 30 years, the county would take control of the building.

The project includes a four-story atrium, 691-space parking garage, chambers for a sixth judge and distinct hallways and separate, secure elevators for prisoners.

Sigaty, who earlier in the month was concerned about missing information in the draft contract, said she viewed updates provided during Friday’s council review as essential. One amendment capped the first year’s payment at $10.9 million to the construction group.

“I felt good about the fact that there was a ‘not to exceed’ amount,” she said. “I just did not want to see us have an unexpected amount due to an interest rate fluctuation that we couldn’t control.”

In subsequent years, the county’s payment can increase to keep pace with inflation.

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