In search of courthouse space

Innovation: With no relief in sight, ideas abound for creating more room in the cramped, old building.

April 16, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

With courthouse space at a premium and the promise of a long-term fix fading with each passing month, Howard County Register of Wills Kay K. Hartleb turned to the ultimate space-saver: a desktop computer.

During the past year, Hartleb has asked teen-age volunteers working in her office to scan every page of every estate file into the computer, creating an electronic record and allowing office staff to send old paper files to the state archives.

More than 1,000 volunteer hours later, the task is nearly complete, she said.

"I think what started off as making more space turned into a program where it became easier for the public to access our records," Hartleb said this week.

With a proposal for a circuit courthouse addition no longer under consideration and a new courthouse building on hold indefinitely, Hartleb's efforts are symbolic of a space-saving philosophy that has taken root in the old, cramped building in Ellicott City.

Last year, the state's attorney's office vacated the courthouse, moving up the road to new offices in the Carroll building. Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret D. Rappaport is completing plans to move her land records department five miles away to the county-owned Dorsey building this spring. Even the court reporters use off-site storage space.

And while an expected renovation project is expected to ease some of the crowding for the next several years -- at least until a sixth Circuit judgeship becomes a necessity -- the plans include little or no new storage or workspace for some offices, leaving courthouse officials in cramped quarters to make do for the foreseeable future.

A more permanent solution to the space woes isn't even on the official radar screen.

Unlike this year's capital budget, which projected a series of courthouse plans -- including an addition and the beginning phases of new construction -- next year's proposal includes no such projects, just $1.5 million for a long-planned renovation of the former state's attorney's space.

The courthouse addition, which was estimated to cost about $3 million, was rejected because of "seemingly overwhelming opposition to that concept," said James M. Irvin, the county's public works director. Although the idea of a new building is being discussed, no decisions have been made, said County Executive James N. Robey.

"It won't happen during my term of office, obviously," said Robey, who is limited to two terms by law and will leave office in December 2006. "But I can at least lay the foundation once we agree on where and when and how to pay for it."

Robey has said he hoped to create a $200 million dedicated fund for school projects through an increase in the real estate transfer tax, freeing other county funds for nonschool projects such as a new courthouse. But Howard County's legislative delegation rejected that idea two years in a row.

Instead, the General Assembly enacted a new-home excise tax, which is expected to generate about $58 million for school construction.

Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure said that with the county population and court workload growing, she wishes a more permanent solution was nearer, but "I certainly understand the budget constraints."

"I'm just still grateful that ... the renovation money is still there," she said. "It's something we need and can operate with for awhile."

But the renovation project, which will convert the state's attorney's offices into a fifth jury courtroom, masters hearing rooms, jury deliberation rooms, inmate interview rooms and other offices, will address only the building's most pressing needs, officials said.

"There has to be, maybe, a new way of doing business down there to maximize the use of the existing building," Irvin said.

For Rappaport, that means putting the finishing touches on her plan to move land records and related functions to the Dorsey building -- a move she says she refused at first but has since embraced out of necessity.

"I had to do something, and that was to move," she said. "I think it's going to be nice, and I'm very optimistic about this move."

For Hartleb, it has meant a year of supervising volunteers -- either through high school honor society programs or community service ordered as a result of involvement in the juvenile justice system -- as they pulled apart files dating as far back as 1939 and scanned each page into the computer. The work would have been too much for her office staff, but has allowed them to send more than 200 boxes of older, closed files to the archives, she said.

While the project started as a way to create room, it has had other benefits for the volunteers, said Judy Pasquantonio, who places the juveniles through the Howard sheriff's office community service section.

The office's employees have been "nurturing and validating" for the teens, she said: "A lot of my kids have benefited from that environment."

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