Howard County needs a new courthouse to replace an aging building and bring the court system into the 21st century, according to an administrative judge.
"Our building is a beautiful building; it's a historic building," said county Circuit Court Judge Lenore R. Gelfman. "But we've got to be able to service the public as the public expects us to do."
Located on Court Avenue in Ellicott City, the courthouse was built about 170 years ago and last underwent major renovations in 1986. Previously, the county planned to temporarily relocate the Circuit Court to the county-owned Ascend One building, on Stanford Boulevard in Columbia, to allow for an 18- to 24-month renovation project at the courthouse.
But the renovation plans were abandoned due to concerns over safety and security, which could not be guaranteed in the planned temporary headquarters, Gelfman said in February. While not revealing what those specific concerns were, she had said the cost of providing the security the building would have needed was prohibitive.
The county government had spent approximately $1.3 million on preparing the Ascend One building for the relocation. An additional $410,000 in changes would have been needed, not including the increased cost of having around-the-clock security.
The county government wanted to renovate rather than construct a new building "because the cost of building a new courthouse was over $100 million," said government spokesman Kevin Enright.
Enright said the administration still feels the cost of a new building is more than the county could afford. The county has not proposed setting aside funding for new construction in its capital budget.
A question of need
Still, Gelfman insists a new courthouse is essential and she is seeking to build a coalition of stakeholders, including lawyers and people in the business community, to come up with funding solutions, whether from the county, the state or a combination of public and private sources.
"It's not that we want a new building — we need a new building," Gelfman said.
She stressed the changes in technology that have aided other government branches, particularly broadband technology for the electronic filing systems coming to Maryland courts. The systems allow for documents to be filled out electronically, rather than down at the courthouse, and the system can then immediately send that information to other agencies and departments instead of waiting for paper copies to be made and distributed.
The current building just doesn't have the space for that technology, Gelfman said, nor does it have enough room to deal with the increasing amount of cases that will come with the rising population in Howard County.
Gelfman also anticipates eventually asking for the court to have a sixth judge, but noted that the courthouse would need space for that, too.
"The expectation of our public is to have a courthouse that is commensurate with the level of business, the level of education and the level of sophistication of our county residents," she said. "Our courthouse simply does not meet the criteria of what a court should be able to do. We do a fine job, but we should do a much better job of accommodating our folks."
The previously planned renovations, Gelfman said, "would've been a very stop-gap Band-Aid measure."
Any new courthouse location would need to be easily accessible to those coming both from Howard County and beyond, Gelfman said, and should also be more physically accommodating than the current building.
"Our courthouse is on a huge hill," she said. "It has a big parking lot and a big downgrade. It's difficult for those who are physically challenged to come into the courthouse building, [which also] has significant challenges for mobility."