Site work underway, with new courthouse expected to be completed by late 2021
On Aug. 20, 2014, Beth G. Waskom, then-president of the South County Division of the Sarasota County Bar Association, appeared before the Sarasota County Commission as the board was working on its 2015 fiscal year budget.
“We do not have the space that we need for hearings in South County,” she said. “We do not have the room for depositions. We do not have the room for mediations. We do not even have the room for traffic court.”
“It is imperative,” Waskom added, “that we get [the R.L. Anderson Administration Center] renovated into a second courthouse so that we can help the residents in the South County area.”
Later that day, then-Commissioner Christine Robinson made a motion to approve an allocation of $3.8 million for the South County courts project.
Other than roads, Robinson said, “This probably affects … the broadest population as far as a capital improvement.”
Having served as an assistant state attorney prior to her appointment to the commission in 2010, Robinson has talked about her first-hand experiences working out of the cramped judicial system space in the county’s Anderson Administration Center in Venice. She also stressed her worries about the insufficiency of security measures to protect judges and attorneys.
The August 2014 vote was one step on a years-long road that cumulated this week in the County Commission’s approval of the issuance of $9,070,000 in bonds to finance what morphed officially into the South County Courts/R.L. Anderson Building Remodel Project, as a county staff memo put it.
The Anderson Center is located at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice.
In the same Aug. 26 motion that authorized the bonds, the board members approved an amendment to a contract with DLR Group Inc. of Orlando for design work on the project, raising the company’s payment from $1,816,873.65 to $2,744,405.75.
A third facet of the motion entailed approval of a contract amendment with Halfacre Construction Co. of Sarasota, as that firm is handling oversight of the work as Construction Manager at Risk. The Halfacre contract was bumped up from $5,901,125 to $21,828,517.
Given all the efforts Commissioner Charles Hines had put into the South County Courts initiative, Commissioner Alan Maio said on Aug. 26, “I would love to have [Hines] make this motion.”
Maio specifically noted Hines’ work with the Sarasota County Bar Association and the judges “over a good number of years.”
After making the motion, Hines pointed out, “This project in and of itself is big enough to brag about.” However, he continued, it also is proof of the board’s commitment “to improve the infrastructure in Sarasota County for our residents. South County is growing tremendously.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert told Hines, “I’m glad [this] came to fruition while you were still a board member.”
When she was running for County Commission in 2016, Detert continued, it seemed as though every attorney in Venice — where she lives — asked whether she supported the South County Courts project, “which I did.”
“Our county’s 55 miles long,” Detert pointed out, “and the growth has happened in the south, so to ask people to keep coming up to North County for services is a little harsh. I’m happily watching the construction [at the Anderson Center].”
The county’s Construction — One Week Look Ahead report for this week noted that, on April 15, staff gave the Notice to Proceed for the site work at the Anderson Center. That includes “dewatering of the north pond to permit construction of a new parking area. During dewatering, County wildlife staff were successful in capturing and relocating many turtles, Gallinules (marsh wading birds), and a small alligator.”
Among the initiatives on tap for this week, the report continued, were preparation of the new parking lot for paving and installation of a new stormwater system.
The report also noted, “The entire project is being arranged to maintain customer service functions although there may be occasional service interruptions.”
Phasing and funding
On Nov. 7, 2018, the board members approved a concept for a 40,000-square-foot, two-story courthouse addition to the Anderson Center that would be designed to accommodate four courtrooms and two future courtrooms. The latter “would be outfitted for court-related offices until such time they are needed for courtrooms,” an Aug. 26 staff memo explained. “This design option offers a way to meet current demand and also plan for a future six court need in a cost-effective way,” the memo added.
The initiative also entails renovations to the Anderson Center and its annex, which will provide for the relocation of county constitutional officers’ facilities, the memo added.
The schematic staff showed the board on Nov. 7, 2018 calls for the offices of the Tax Collector, the Supervisor of Elections and the Property Appraiser to be on the first floor of the renovated center. The facilities for the State Attorney’s Office, Veterans Services and the Health Department would be in the annex. The Planning and Development Services Department and the Public Defender’s Office would be on the second floor of the Anderson Center.
The total budget for the undertaking has been increased by $700,008, the memo noted, to include a secure parking garage.
Construction is planned in three phases. After the site work has been completed, the second phase will encompass the courthouse construction; the third phase, the renovations to the R.L. Anderson Center.
The site work is scheduled for completion by the end of September, the staff memo said. Thanks to the Aug. 26 commission vote, the memo continued, “the second phase … will be initiated for a seamless transition from the site work to the new courthouse building.” The courthouse section is to be substantially complete by the end of 2021, the memo said. “At that time, Court functions and the [South County Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller] will relocate to the new Courthouse,” the memo pointed out.
“Staff will bring amendments for Board consideration in late 2021 for the third and final phase,” the memo said.
Staff worked for years not only on the design, but also on how to pay for the project. Several years ago, the commissioners considered conducting a bond referendum during the November 2018 General Election, seeking close to $200 million for multiple projects, including new facilities for the Sheriff’s Office as well as the South County Courts initiative. However, as Hines noted on Aug. 26, the board members finally realized that asking the voters to give them the OK for spending such a large amount of money was not appropriate.
Instead, impact fees will make up much of the funding for the new courts and renovated constitutional officers’ facilities. The Aug. 26 staff memo explained that, on April 20, the county’s impact fee administrator “approved increases in impact fee eligibility for the project based on the most recent construction cost estimates and data provided by [the county’s Capital Projects Division staff].” As a result, the memo added, the new eligible amount from General Government Impact Fees is $2,618,737, while the revised figure for the Justice Facility Impact Fees is $18,904,205. Revenue the county receives from a voter-approved, additional penny of sales tax also will help cover the expense of the work, the memo noted.