The House has joined the Senate in approving $50 million for a new 2nd District Court of Appeal facility, after the chamber left it out of its initial budget proposal. But, the location of the new facility is still to be decided.
The House added the item in its first offer, and it was accepted in the Senate’s second offer, released Monday night. The proposed allocation is more than double the amount approved last year.
Although the budgets back the funding, the Senate’s second offer notes that the facility’s location is to yet to be determined — a change from the Senate’s original budget proposal, in which Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, set framework for a new facility in Polk County.
Stargel’s husband, John Stargel, is a judge in the 2nd DCA, appointed last summer by DeSantis, who lives in Lakeland.
The original 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 location in another Tampa Bay county is not completely off the table, the proposed funding line prioritizes Polk County, where Lakeland is the largest city.
But now, the courthouse location will be up to the committee chairs to decide, and possibly even Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls — both Tampa Bay lawmakers. Sprowls prefers a Pinellas County location, his home county.
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.
The location of the courthouse has caused a stir among some local circles, including the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, which advocated in favor of the court being moved to Hillsborough or Pinellas County.
Those opposing the court’s location in Polk County reference a 2016 study that recommends a new 2nd DCA in one of the two more populated counties. 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.
Based on current estimates, the Lakeland Court’s lease should continue supporting existing operations through this year, while the existing lease in Tampa expires in 2023. This timeframe, the Chamber argues, gives the 2nd DCA the ability to plan for the best longterm option.
Stargel told Florida Politics previously that 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.”