Courthouse plan could be in jeopardy State funds depend on county's providing data, judge warns

'We are in a hiatus'

He urges quick action by local officials on district building

December 03, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Unless Carroll officials act immediately to resolve questions about a new district courthouse in Westminster, the county may lose the state project, Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. said yesterday.

Engineering money must be allocated in the state's next capital budget if a new multipurpose District Court building is to be built across the street from the old one as planned, Beck told the County Commissioners.

Decisions about what to include in that budget are being made now, Beck said, and any project that appears to have stalled will lose out. Beck, a former state senator who served on the Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee, urged the commissioners to assure the state that Carroll is committed to the project.

"Right now we are in a hiatus where we may have a few hours, perhaps a few days" to do that, Beck said. "Since Oct. 1, they've been waiting for the answer to a few basic questions."

A new Westminster courthouse was third on the state's district court priority list two years ago and had moved up to No. 1 this year until questions about the project went unanswered, Beck said.

If questions remain, money for the courthouse will be transferred to other state projects and might not be restored, Beck said. The governor and the General Assembly elected in 2000 would have to approve the project anew, he said.

It is a complicated issue. In Maryland, the counties build circuit courthouses and the state builds district courthouses. In Westminster, the Circuit and District courts share a building with the Board of Education, which is being moved to new quarters. When the present courthouse was built in the 1970s, the county paid for the land and the state paid for the building.

The new plan calls for the District Court to move across the street on property the county would purchase. The Circuit Court would take over the present building.

"My idea was that if we could build a District Court, we could expand the Circuit Court with four jury courtrooms that would meet our needs well into the 21st century," Beck said.

Beck said he thought the project was on track until he spoke with Arthur Hilsenrad, deputy secretary for capital programs in the Maryland Department of Management and Budget, on Oct. 1.

Apparently, county officials had been dealing with a branch of state government other than Budget and Management, which according to Beck, "calls the shots" on budget issues.

The state budget office wanted assurances that the exchange of property for the old building would be a fair one and that the 30,000-square-foot site for the project is adequate to meet current and future state needs. It also wanted a county timetable for acquiring the lot and constructing the building.

The county commissioners said they felt that determining the adequacy of the site and setting a timetable for construction were things the state should do. Beck persuaded them that the state was asking for commitment and cooperation, not county funding of a state project.

"I think we can step in and follow Judge Beck's advice," Steven D. Powell, the county budget director, told the commissioners. If so, the project "may be salvaged," he said.

The commissioners told Powell to resolve the other issues by phone with Hilsenrad and Frederick W. Puddester, the state secretary of budget and management, and to follow up today with a letter that he or an aide would deliver.

"I have no way of predicting where the state is" on the project, Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said yesterday after the commissioners' meeting with Beck.

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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