The Rutherford County Property Management Committee approved Thursday the receipt of a report on planning recommendations for a new justice center to address future court requirements as a result of the explosive growth in population.
Committee members will consider the recommendations and return in November to decide if they will approve the report and forward a request to begin the design phase of the project, which experts estimate could cost up to $4 million, to the Rutherford County Budget Committee.
If passed next month, Budget Committee members would take up the proposal on Thursday, Dec. 5.
The total cost of the new judicial facilities could cost upwards of $72 million, according to officials.
A new justice center would consist of a 200,000-square-foot, $65 million courthouse, with a secure parking garage underneath the building, and an additional free-standing parking garage with 366 available spaces located nearby, estimated at $7 million, said Michael Thomas, president of Justice Planning Associates, who prepared the report.
Thomas, who has been involved in the design of about 90 courthouses over the past three decades, told the committee that he had looked at several options, including splitting the courts or reusing existing facilities.
However, Thomas recommended the county build a new courthouse that will ultimately feature 16 courtrooms, though only 12 would need to be completed by 2018, the projected year for completion if started in early 2014.
The additional four courtrooms would be left unfinished to reduce present cost but would be available in the future when needed, which Thomas predicts will be “sometime around 2030.”
The justice center proposed by Thomas would have larger courtrooms and separate hallways and elevators for the judges, juries, inmates and the general public to use for security purposes, as a result of updated building standards.
Additionally, Thomas proposed two options for the committee to consider in the design of the courthouse: a shorter, broader building of about six stories that runs the risk of “looming” over the street, or a taller, “more graceful” building of about 10 or 11 stories, which could increase the cost of the project.
“A new courthouse is basically four years away,” Thomas said, adding that selection of an architect would take about four months, design of the building about 18 or 21 months, and construction could run as much as two years.
The new building, which would be located on Maple Street across from the Rutherford County Clerk’s Office, is projected to serve the needs of the county until mid-century, when continued population growth will fuel the need for more judges, and possibly a stand-alone annex, Thomas said.
Using population projections from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Tennessee Data Center, Thomas said that by the year 2050, the population of Rutherford County is expected to exceed 672,000 – more than double its current numbers.
“We want to consolidate the courts and keep them consolidated until the half-turn of the century,” Thomas said. “So, consolidate now, and you’ll eventually have to split anyway. If you split now, you’re going to have a heck of a mess on your hands.”
As a result of this, Thomas said, although the county has selected the lot adjacent to the County Clerk’s Office as the location for the parking garage, it would be better used as a location for the future annex.
The report, which cost the county $30,000, is an update from a similar report prepared in 2008 when the county was previously considering expanding its courthouse facilities, said Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess.
Burgess said the previous plan to update to new facilities was put on hold, however, when other “capital needs” arose.
“The recession and the need for school construction took priority over our ability to do this,” Burgess said. “We wish we could have done it many years ago, but we didn’t have the capacity. And we just had too many other things we had to do first. Now is the first small window of opportunity that we really have to move forward in a serious way.”
Burgess said he is “hopeful” the county can take on this project without another increase in property taxes anytime soon.
He requested committee members approve the report and submit the funds appropriation for hiring an architect to begin designing the new building as soon as April 2014, so that the project can stay on track with the tentative 2018 completion date.
Committee Chairman Allen McAdoo also spoke in support of starting the process on the new justice center soon and referred to a recent need to spend $191,000 on the roof at the existing Rutherford County Judicial Building.
“The existing building that we’ve got, we’ve stretched it to the limit, and nobody can get up here and say that it’s 100 percent safe for the public or for the employees over there,” McAdoo said. “If we keep prolonging this project, it’s going to add more monies, and we’re going to be in a worse situation than we are now with the courthouse.”
If the Property Management and Budget committees votes to approve the proposal, it will likely go before the Rutherford County Commission in mid-December.