Like a game of musical chairs, Howard County's circuit court is moving this year — to the same temporary Columbia quarters now being used for county government offices while renovations to its main complex in Ellicott City are under way, county officials said.
Work on the three-building government complex is due for completion by August, and the courts could move later in the fall, according to county public works director James M. Irvin.
Irvin told the County Council on Tuesday that the move will allow $4.5 million in safety and accessibility improvements to be made to the crowded court building, since there is no money to replace the historic Ellicott City structure, which was last renovated and enlarged in 1988.
"The building is very overcrowded and is dysfunctional," Irvin told the council members. He said the improvements are badly needed, especially to provide for more secure movement of prisoners, and to solve fire safety and environmental problems.
If the council approves that item in the capital budget, it means the county will continue renting the Ascend One Columbia office building the government has used at 8930 Stanford Blvd. since November 2008, when $47 million in renovations began on the three-building George Howard office complex.
Most county offices should move back to Ellicott City in August, Irvin said, but the county plans to pay another $1.7 million in rent for another year to house the courts for up to five months, along with several other agencies, including human resources and information technology, until new space can be found for them. No major modifications to the building will be done for the courts, Irvin said.
One council member, Fulton Republican Greg Fox, questioned spending money on the court building when the county expects to fall $4 million to $7 million short on cash to pay for the main government renovation project.
Surplus property the county is selling was expected to provide up to $20 million of the total renovation cost, but is likely to provide between $13 million to $15 million, Irvin said, though the pending sales aren't complete. One deal involves a former county school site on Route 108 in Clarksville and the other is a 25-acre wooded lot on Rogers Avenue near U.S. 40 that Irvin said the county is negotiating to sell. With the office market moribund, he said the land will likely sprout townhouses one day.
Fox asked why the county couldn't postpone the court project for one year and use the money instead to pay for the government complex renovations.
"For all practical purposes, that's budgeted with money that is not there," Fox said.
But county budget director Raymond S. Wacks said the sale prices of the surplus properties are not certain, and the administration would rather let things play out in fiscal year 2011 and plug any hole the next year. Fox conceded that the county has enough cash flow in its $1.4 billion total annual budget to do that.
Maj. George Voll of the county sheriff's office said Wednesday that the security and fire improvements are vital. "The security system we use now is 20 years old," and the fire alarm system is also outdated, he said. The work would replace the electric door and cell controls, among other things, he said.
Administrative Circuit Judge Diane Leasure did not attend the meeting, but said later that the court building improvements "are desperately needed" and can't be done with courts remaining in the building.
There are constant complaints of mold and smells in the building, she said. Jurors sometimes must sit on steps to wait because of a lack of space and chairs, and prisoner security and fire systems need improvements. To fix climate and fire systems in courtroom ceilings, court operations must move, she said.
"We have not objected when these projects were put off in the past," she said. "We really desperately need for this work to be done." Leasure said the courts are in "dire need" of more space generally, but since the county can't afford a new court building, some improvements are vital.