Court officials oppose relocation plans

Court clerk and register of wills object

May 02, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Two elected court officials are objecting to plans to temporarily empty Howard County's gray granite Circuit Court building late this year for $4.5 million in renovations.

"I'm not going to move," said Circuit Court Clerk Margaret D. Rappaport, who said the thousands of civil and criminal court files she administers in the building's basement would take days to move and the public disruption would be too great. She suggested saving the renovation money for use on a new court building and just doing some minimal repairs, one section at a time.

"The courthouse needs a good cleaning," she said, and "every courtroom has a different temperature. That needs fixing."I don't think this is the time" for a major renovation.

Register of Wills Kay K. Hartleb said she thinks that some work needs to be done in the building but not enough to require moving everyone out for months. A jury room addition could be built, she said, without emptying the entire building.

"It sounds simple, but it's not," she said about moving. Both officials said they were told about the project a month ago but not asked for their opinions. The County Council is considering the court renovations as part of the fiscal 2011 capital budget, but no vote has been taken. Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, has suggested delaying the court project, however, and using the money to help pay for renovations to county offices instead. Rappaport and Hartleb are also Republicans.

The plan county public works director James M. Irvin described to the County Council is to move the courts into the Ascend 1 office building in Columbia, which is being used as temporary quarters for general county offices while renovations are under way at the George Howard office complex in Ellicott City. Once that work is done in August, most county offices could move back, and the courts could move to temporary quarters in Columbia for about half a year. Renting the Columbia building would cost $1.7 million for another year.

Administrative Judge Diane O. Leasure and Irvin said moving is the only feasible alternative during work that would create a new mezzanine level for prospective jurors, add an outside elevator for the handicapped, and replace electronic security and air handling equipment throughout the building. The current outdoor entrance would be enclosed to enlarge the lobby, blocking the main point of entry into the building. The money spent would be minor compared to what is considered the unaffordable cost of a new court building, which has been estimated as high as $100 million.

"It's a granite building," Irvin said, and drilling into stone, taking down old walls and building new ones would create noise and dust. The only way to avoid a move, he said, would be to "do the work in off hours and on weekends," which would take much longer and make the job much more expensive.

Leasure has said repairs and upgrades have already been put off for years, and with no new building on the horizon, there's no alternative but to do the work.

"I hate to throw good money after bad, but I think we're going to be in this building for many years to come," she said. "Unfortunately, there isn't going to be any choice." She said construction work would create "absolutely unsafe conditions for people coming in or out of this building."

The current courthouse was a 1988 addition to a 19th-century building used for all county offices until the 1970s. As the county has grown, however, space has become inadequate, and land records and the state's attorney's offices were relocated to other quarters during the past decade.

Plans to build an entirely new county government office complex were considered over the past dozen years, but County Executive Ken Ulman finally decided the price tags up to $250 million were all too high, especially given the recession. He opted for a much-cheaper $47 million renovation of existing 1970s buildings, and the idea of a new court building was dropped.

Rappaport, the clerk for the past two decades, is running for re-election this year, as is Hartleb, who has been register of wills for 24 years.

"I did 700 weddings this year," Rappaport said, noting the wedding room reserved in her offices for those ceremonies. Couples see the courthouse as the place for civil unions, she said, not an office building.

"Where would you go for weddings?" she asked.

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