The Senate’s proposed budget includes $50 million for a new 2nd District Court of Appeal facility in Lakeland.
The proposed allocation is more than double the amount approved last year and proposes construction in Lakeland rather than Pinellas County, last year’s approved location.
The Legislature in 2020 approved a $21 million expenditure to begin plans for a new facility in Pinellas County, likely at the state-owned Sebring Building in downtown St. Petersburg’s Mirror Lake neighborhood. However, the project fell victim to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “Red Wedding” veto spree, spurred by expected revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic.
Instead of coming back with the same proposal this year, the budget, headed by Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, asks for $50 million for a new Polk County facility without specifying a location. The proposal stipulates that if a Polk County site cannot be identified, “funds may be used to purchase state or local lands within the jurisdiction of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.”
While that means a Pinellas County location is not completely off the table, the proposed funding line prioritizes Polk County, where Lakeland is the largest city. Stargel’s husband, John Stargel, is a judge in the 2nd DCA, appointed last summer by DeSantis.
That comes despite a 2016 study recommending a new 2nd DCA in either Hillsborough or Pinellas County. The study, conducted by Savills Studley Occupier Services in conjunction with the National Center for State Courts, found a Hillsborough or Pinellas County location would serve a greater portion of 2nd DCA staff and concerned parties than any other location within the district.
At the time of the study, 13 of the 16 judges within the 2nd DCA worked in Tampa full time. Only three judges worked in Lakeland, with even those splitting their time between Lakeland and Tampa. Staff supporting the 13 judges also worked full-time in Tampa.
Of the 104 2nd DCA employees at the time of the study, approximately 61% lived in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, while only 34% lived in Polk County.
Further, the study found that the 2nd DCA’s population is geographically centered in the Tampa Bay region, according to the most recent U.S. Census data at that time. It found 41% of the 2nd DCA jurisdiction’s population resided in the Tampa Bay area, with just 12% of the population residing within Polk County.
A full 62% of Florida Bar members within the 2nd DCA lived in Tampa Bay, compared to just 6% who lived in Polk County. The study found that “the residency of lawyers in relation to the location of the 2nd DCA has a major impact on the recruitment and retention of staff talent.”
It’s not expected that in the time since the study’s completion, those numbers have significantly shifted to change the overall population dynamics.
Stargel told Florida Politics the proposed budget allocation is consistent with state statute requiring its location in Lakeland. Florida State Statute 35.05 states the headquarters “shall be” located with “the Tenth Judicial Circuit, Lakeland, Polk County.
“I don’t believe that our court should be determined on where the current judges reside,” Stargel said.
Asked about her husband residing within the proposed new headquarter’s city, Stargel said he had no preference on where the new office was located.
“This issue has been around a long time before he was on the DCA and he doesn’t care where it is,” Stargel said. “The law says that it needs to be in Lakeland.”
The appeals court is currently operating in leased space at a Stetson Law building near downtown Tampa after moving from its previous home in Lakeland due to unsafe air quality conditions at the aging building, which is still technically home base for the 2nd DCA.
Stargel said most judges prefer to work in the Tampa location, but argued judges have long been disinterested in where the actual headquarters was located.
The current lease with Stetson expires in 2023, which would have given the state adequate time to secure a new permanent home had last year’s allocation not been vetoed.
The project had been lauded not only as a way to find a permanent and more suitable home for the 2nd DCA, but as a potential boon for downtown St. Pete and Mirror Lake.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, whose district is nestled within St. Pete, called the project a “truly once in a multigenerational opportunity,” one that could fundamentally reshape the Mirror Lake neighborhood, according to the St. Pete Catalyst.
The building was also ideal because it was already state-owned property, a prerequisite recommended in the Savills study and included in the 2021 budget proposal.
The $21 million vetoed last year would not have paid for the entire project but would have laid the foundation for a jumping-off point and paved the way for future appropriations to get the job done.
This year’s proposed $50 million would fund both the design and construction of a new Polk County facility, assuming a state- or locally-owned site is identified.
Asked whether she worried ongoing tough budget decisions could hinder her proposal for the $50 million project, Stargel said she was hopeful because it was a one-time expenditure, not a recurring cost. The state’s revenue has been hindered by the COVID-19 crisis, but those effects, she said, will be felt in recurring expenses more so than one-time costs.
“We have a breadth of nonrecurring dollars,” Stargel said, noting budget boosts from one-time federal allocations aimed at COVID-19 recovery efforts.