Budget conference: Senate, House at odds over $9M courthouse expenditure

Bernie McCabe Couthouse
The courthouse — which covers the 6th, 12th and 13th Judicial Circuits — has been years in the making.

In January, judges implored lawmakers to earmark an extra $9 million for the construction of a new Bernie McCabe 2nd District Court of Appeal building in St. Petersburg.

A Monday comparison of proposed 2023-24 spending by the Senate and House show that while members of the Legislature’s lower chamber heeded that request in full, the Senate isn’t offering it a cent.

Florida lawmakers are deliberating over how to spend about $115 billion in the next fiscal year. The chambers agree on myriad set-asides, including $75 million for the Job Growth Grant Fund and $20 million for the “eradication” of fentanyl statewide.

But while the House is offering all $9 million requested for the pending courthouse — named for the late Bernie McCabe, who served as Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney in Florida’s 6th Judicial Circuit for nearly three decades — the Senate’s budget doesn’t mention the project at all.

Developers in mid-December broke ground on the long-anticipated building, for which former House Speaker Chris Sprowls secured $50 million in April 2021. Work has since stalled.

The new structure is to rise on the site of the former Sebring Building downtown. Its current design calls for three stories comprising 53,000 square feet, including 15 judicial chambers, one courtroom and workspace for about 95 full-time employees.

The total project cost of $59 million includes its design, construction, land purchase, permits, site development, furniture, fixtures and the paving of a new surface parking lot, which will be built instead of a previously contemplated underground garage.

Leading up to and through Skanska USA Building Inc.’s groundbreaking on the project Dec. 14, architectural and engineering firm DLR Group has been revising its schematic designs to better fit budgetary constraints and accommodate for inflated material costs.

Those designs should be ready this summer, 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Jan. 25. Construction documents, material bidding and permitting is expected to be done in the fall, he said, with construction to recommence in earnest by early 2024.

The courthouse — which covers the 6th, 12th and 13th Judicial Circuits — has been years in the making. A 2016 study by Savills Studley Occupier Services and the National Center for State Courts called for a 73,000-square-foot building with 18 judicial chambers, two courtrooms and workspace for 117 full-time workers to be built somewhere in the Tampa Bay area.

The project’s estimated price tag then was $34 million, not including the cost of land, permits, site development, parking, furniture, fixtures or other components.

Also in 2016, the Lakeland court building previously housing the 2nd DCA had to be evacuated due to “a bunch of asbestos,” said Gerber, who spoke on behalf of 2nd DCA Chief Judge Robert Morris and Tom Berger, director of real estate development and management for the Department of Management Services.

Judges, court staff and lawyers in the district have since worked without a proper courthouse, with 2nd DCA cases taking place in a classroom in downtown Tampa.

A 2021 press note from Sprowls’ Office blamed mold infestation for making workers sick. The building was set to be demolished this month.

Budget conference subcommittees will meet throughout the week to resolve differences in each area. When remaining issues reach an impasse, they will be “bumped” to the full budget conference committee. Lawmakers must reach an agreement on a final spending plan by May 2 to meet the 72-hour “cooling off” period required by the state constitution before they can vote on the budget to avoid pushing the Regular Session past its scheduled May 5 end date.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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