Chief judge emphasizes ‘access to justice for all’
The theme for the gathering of Sarasota County leaders at 4004 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice on the morning of May 4 could have been the first line of a 1969 Crosby, Stills & Nash song: “It’s been a long time comin’.”
The occasion was the ribbon cutting for the new South County Courthouse, on the grounds of Sarasota County’s R.L. Anderson Administration Center.
Kimberly Bonner, chief judge of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit, told the audience that her first rotation in South County as an assistant state attorney for the 12th District began in 1991. “We said back then, ‘We really need a proper courthouse in Venice.’”
Later, she continued, “I said to someone, ‘We’re all going to be collecting Social Security by the time they build the courthouse down here. … We [achieved] that before I’m eligible for Social Security, so I’m happy about that.”
In fact, Bonner added, she was “deeply grateful” for the new 42,000-square-foot facility, which has one full-size courtroom on the first floor and three more on the second floor, plus room for two additional courtrooms.
“This has been quite a long haul for all of us,” Bonner pointed out.
Nonetheless, she emphasized, “This is not about fancy buildings. … It is about access to justice for all of us, for the residents of South County who have gotten by with what they had for so long. Having the access to justice without any travail of geography or transportation is extremely important,” Bonner said.
In August 2013, then-County Commissioner Christine Robinson of Venice called it a “very itty bitty step” when she and her colleagues voted to direct staff to report on future space needs in the Anderson Administration Center. Robinson, too, had served as an assistant state attorney at the Venice complex.
During her May 4 remarks preceding the ribbon cutting, Karen E. Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, noted that in the 1980s, the space where the tent with the audience members stood “was an open breezeway area.”
Her office was small back then, she continued. “We took payments and had court once a week down here. People could bring us documents, and we could transport them to what we called … the ‘county seat.’”
Finally, Rushing noted, when the Anderson Center was constructed, “We began to really provide services to the community.”
She offered her gratitude not only to past and present commissioners, but also to the members of the county Bar Association, “who relentlessly kept expressing the importance [of new court facilities] to the community.”
Building on Bonner’s remarks, Rushing continued, “This is a building that serves the people. In the Clerk’s Office, we help people with their adoptions, with their divorces, with their domestic violence [protective measures], with their traffic tickets. All facts of life actually revolve around a courthouse.”
When he took his turn at the podium, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood, vice chair of the County Commission, noted that when he began entertaining the idea of running for the board, “One of the first persons” he visited was his decades-long friend Russ Snyder, a trial attorney.
“I remember sitting down with him in his downtown Venice office,” Cutsinger continued. “The first words out of Russ’ mouth were ‘South County courthouse,’” Cutsinger added, prompting a round of laughter among the audience members.
“Last week, the Bar Association held their open house here,” Cutsinger said. Afterward, Snyder sent him a note, Cutsinger added: “Everyone LOVES our new courthouse.”
Cutsinger emphasized the fact that “LOVES” was in all caps.
Snyder also called the facility a “five-star success,” Cutsinger pointed out. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Cutsinger then talked of the challenges to the construction team, which had to “completely move a stormwater facility and build a new, expanded parking lot” with 175 spaces amid a pandemic with supply chain shortages growing increasingly common. The workers also had to ensure that the existing offices remained open, Cutsinger pointed out. “It took excellent cooperation.”
The new courthouse, he continued, is a state-of-the-art facility with improved security measures, digital audio technology and energy efficiency features, such as LED lighting.
“This is especially a great day for South County,” he added.
Then, drawing more laughter, Cutsinger said, “It took me all of 6 minutes to get here this morning. South County is one of the fastest growing communities in the entire state.”
How to get it done
Commission Chair Maio reminded that audience members that, at one point, the commissioners were working toward conducting a public safety referendum on the November 2016 General Election ballot. That would have sought voter approval for the funding for the South County Courthouse, plus a new Sheriff’s Office headquarters and a new fleet facility that then-Sheriff Tom Knight long had called a necessity.
Ultimately, they scrapped that idea and found ways to provide those other facilities, which left them figuring out how best to get the courthouse project accomplished, Maio said.
Finally, in August 2020, the commissioners voted unanimously to authorize the issuance of $9,070,000 in bonds to help finance the courthouse and renovations to the R.L. Anderson Administration Center.
They also voted to award a contract to DLR Group Inc. of Orlando for the design work, for a total of $2,744,405.75, and they authorized total spending of $5,901,125 to Halfacre Construction Co. of Sarasota. The latter firm handled the oversight of the project as construction manager at risk.
During a December 2019 presentation to the commissioners, staff said the total project budget was $32,118,500. A county webpage dedicated to the initiative points out that justice system impact fees and other money from the judicial system have paid for much of the work. During the May 4 event, Maio indicated that revenue from the county’s Surtax III Program — funded by an extra penny of sales tax — covered the rest of the expense.
The architect for the courthouse was Sweet Sparkman of Sarasota, while the contractor was Kokolakis Contracting, whose Southeast Regional office is in Tarpon Springs.
As for the renovations to the Anderson Center and its annex: A Nov. 7, 2018 schematic provided to the commissioners showed plans for the offices of the Tax Collector, the Supervisor of Elections and the Property Appraiser to be on the first floor. The facilities for the State Attorney’s Office, Veterans Services and the Health Department would be in the annex. The county’s Planning and Development Services Department office and the Public Defender’s Office would be on the second floor.