At the courthouse, 'our tour of woe'

With nearly half of the county's legislative delegation trailing behind him yesterday morning, Howard Circuit Court Administrator John Shatto moved through the perennially cramped courthouse, pointing out the building's inadequacies along the way.

Jury and master's hearing rooms are too few. A fifth courtroom is too small.


"This is our tour of woe," he said as the group walked from the sheriff's office to the register of wills and court clerk's spaces.

By the time they were done, state legislators said they were impressed with the courthouse needs, but wondered if building an addition in the near future - an option suggested by a 2-year-old study - makes fiscal sense given the eventual need for a new multimillion-dollar courthouse.


"I am concerned. ... Are we looking at the best use of taxpayer money?" said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican. "Are we looking far enough into the future?"

The legislators were at the courthouse courtesy of a series of tours set up by Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, the House delegation chairman, so he and his colleagues could see first-hand the realities behind the budget requests they are asked to consider.

Various legislators have visited Cedar Lane School in Columbia, a school for profoundly disabled students that hopes to relocate, and the planned public safety training center, a facility some county Republicans have opposed.

The courthouse tour came several months after the county delegation killed a bond request for $400,000 to help pay for an immediate renovation and a later addition to the building. the legislators expressed concerns that it would be redundant to spend the money when a new courthouse would be needed in about a decade.

The county is working on the planned renovation, which would address what court officials said are 10-year-old needs, by making the building's fifth courtroom fully functional and adding jury deliberation rooms and other space.

The renovation will use the offices recently vacated when the state's attorney's office moved down the road to the Carroll Building.

"All we're doing now is adjusting to where we should have been years ago," Shatto told the legislators. "It's a retroactive."

Yesterday, three county delegates and two senators asked about the need for more inmate interview space and about the time frame for adding a sixth judge - a change courthouse officials said the current building cannot accommodate.


Republican Sen. Robert H. Kittleman said he was impressed by the needs of Clerk of Court Margaret D. Rappaport, who recently said she is planning to move land records out of the courthouse and into a county-owned building five miles away.

"Boy, she's just completely buried," he said.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who voted for the last courthouse renovation and addition when she was on the County Council in the early 1980s, said it was "one of the most ill-advised votes" she has taken. That project was called inadequate after it was completed.

"I left thinking [it] may make some sense to get some more use out of the building as it is now," she said. "It's really important for the county to be looking for a new site for the courthouse."