Low-flying courts building could be state’s most expensive

Deal, judges claim new court complex badly needed; critics complain of too little scrutiny over big-ticket projects.

Tucked quietly into the back of the upcoming year’s state budget is money to design one of the most expensive buildings in state history.

After some late-session judicial lobbying, the General Assembly approved borrowing $7.5 million to design and begin site preparation for the new home of the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals on land where the long-closed state archives now sits.

Projections are that the judicial complex will cost up to $115 million, more than twice what the state spent constructing the Twin Towers office building across the street from the Capitol about 35 years ago. But state officials won’t know for sure until the design and construction is completed. A state judicial complex dedicated in Denver last May cost more than $250 million.

Whatever the ultimate price tag, it will certainly be the most expensive building ever constructed on Capitol Hill, and one of the most expensive state taxpayers ever funded, excluding stadiums.

Importantly for supporters, it has the backing of the man most likely to make it happen: Gov. Nathan Deal, a lawyer and former juvenile court judge who is the board chairman for agencies that sell state bonds and developed the judicial complex plan.

Some lawmakers — including some on budget committees — told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution they didn’t realize they were voting to start the pricey project, even though it had been listed at the back of the bond section of the $20.8 billion state budget from the beginning of the session.

Had they known the long-term costs, they may have balked. Such major construction projects around the state Capitol have long been the target of out-state lawmakers, who’d rather spend money on projects in their home districts.

And some critics say the lack of publicity about the complex points to systemic problems with how state officials plan and fund big-ticket public projects.

“That’s a problem with a lot of capital investments we have,” said Alan Essig, a former legislative budget analyst and executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “They are put in the back of the budget and they are not vetted in public meetings. We don’t have a very open or detailed process.”

The judiciary has been rallying behind the plan for a new home for years, saying their current 1953 building across the street from the Capitol has long been outdated. They had the governor’s ear.

“The governor was for it because it was an issue pushed strongly by the judiciary, and he agrees there is a need,” said Brian Robinson, spokesman for Deal, who is up for re-election this year.

Deal recommended putting $12.5 million into the budget to demolish the old archives building and design the court complex, but lawmakers cut that total back to $7.5 million. The governor’s office knew the General Assembly wasn’t ready to pay the full freight for the building this year.

“It was just too big a bite of the apple all at one,” Robinson said. “It is something we will get done. This year was the first step.”

Many lawmakers and Capitol Hill regulars say updated court facilities are needed. But some legislators also questioned the timing of the project. They note that many teachers and state employees have gone years without raises and will see only modest increases next year. And school districts and state agencies are only now starting to dig out of deep financial craters created by the Great Recession.

“I don’t think anyone knew the cost of the (judicial) building,” said former House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin, R-Evans, a member of the budget committee. “When you are talking about something that is that large, it’s something you ought to talk a little more about.”

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate government budget subcommittee, argues that putting money toward a judicial complex suggests the governor’s priorities are off.

“The budget reflects your priorities and this reflects the Republican priorities,” Fort said. “Building buildings, rather than expanding Medicaid or making sure children can afford college.”

High courts need space

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson said the court system has been in the need of new digs for a long time.

The court building has had problems with ceiling leaks, “inundating” records with water, he said. Caseloads have been growing but the space available hasn’t. Security for the building is far below what many similar courts have around the country. Several sites were looked at for new facilities, but state officials wanted to keep the courts on Capitol Hill and they have long been planning to tear down the archives building at the corner of Memorial and Capitol Avenue.

They also knew a new judicial complex, with modern security features, would be expensive.

“We’re building not just for this budgetary year, but we are building for the next 100 years or so,” Thompson said. “It would be a long-term investment in the courts and a long-term investment for the people of Georgia.

“The need is certainly there now. We are at absolute capacity.”

The complex would be home to the two top courts as well as the administrative office of the courts, and would be built out over several years, he said.

Georgia Building Authority officials said design firms have been contacting the agency, knowing that a judicial complex like the one the state has planned could be a “signature” building.

Benjamin Flowers, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s college of architecture, said the federal General Services Administration sought to reinvigorate the designing of civic projects. A lot of firms took that challenge to heart, and courthouse and court buildings have been a prime part of that drive.

There also is a ton of money to be made in big court projects, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks upped concern over security.

“I am not surprised a lot of firms are interested in it,” Flowers said. “Because these are complex projects, they are expensive projects. These are very lucrative complexes … these are projects society has to invest in. It’s a building that demands a certain level of grandeur.”

Transparency an issue

The eventual price tag is hard to project because if the construction economy continues to improve, the cost of finding skilled crews and the materials needed will increase, Flowers said.

Those are the kind of issues that should be talked about in open legislative meetings, said Essig.

“There should be more than a handful of people in the discussion,” he said. “They (the projects) go through the process with few people knowing what they are.”

Deal included $12.5 million for planning and site preparation for the complex on page 408 of his 409-page spending proposal released in mid-January. Steve Stancil, a former Republican lawmaker and longtime executive director of the Georgia Building Authority, discussed the agency’s plans with the chairman of the House budget committee and Senate subcommittee members.

The House and Senate left Deal’s proposal intact during initial budget votes, but Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, was thinking about cutting it from the budget. Traditionally, when lawmakers go looking for money for their own local projects, bonds for Georgia Building Authority Atlanta construction are a prime target.

But Hill got a visit from some judges pushing the proposal, and House and Senate leaders left in $7.5 million. Since the money will be borrowed using 20-year-bonds, the $7.5 million for planning and site preparation will cost about $13 million in loan payments.

Deal’s support for 20-year bonds reverses a position he took in 2011, when he vetoed several bond projects and said the state shouldn’t pay to design buildings with 20-year bonds because “design is a short-term, limited life and does not result in a physical asset.”

South Georgia’s Hill can be a tough sell on such projects, but when asked about getting construction money for the judicial center, he said, “It will probably be worked out. If times are good and everybody can work out what’s good for them, there is less pressure to stop it. If we start cutting the budget, the first thing we look at is the GBA budget.”

Instead of a few state leaders picking and reviewing big building projects, Essig said lawmakers should have committees holding public meetings, reviewing capital construction, possibly in between legislative sessions.

“It’s not that these are bad projects,” he said. “It’s about transparency.”

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