With years spent in a courtroom, York County President Judge Stephen Linebaugh presumably knows a lot about presenting a good case.
And county commissioners said Linebaugh did just that Wednesday when he made his argument for building out the vacant fifth floor of the York County Judicial Center, which was left unfinished when the building opened about eight years ago.
But budget constraints could ultimately determine whether the project, estimated to cost at least $5 million, is completed.
After Linebaugh's presentation, commissioners said they would need time to mull the build-out and whether it's a monetary priority. The board has been crafting its 2013 budget for months, and Linebaugh estimated bond payments on a $5 million build-out would cost about $335,000 per year.
While the judge made a compelling case, the project must fit into the county's financial plan, said commissioner Chris Reilly. He said he's in favor of spending $50,000 to develop a conceptual design of the proposed layout, which would include creation of six-to-eight non-jury courtrooms.
County engineer John Klinedinst said the layout will determine the project's cost, detailing the kind of work to be done. Non-jury courtrooms, for example, are less expensive to furbish than jury courtrooms.
Vice-President Commissioner Doug Hoke said it's not a question of "if" the project will be completed, but "when." However, the $5 million estimate is several years old, and an update is needed to see if that number is still realistic, he said.
President Commissioner Steve Chronister said Hoke was right about the project being a "when," and he appreciated Linebaugh's proposed cost-saving initiatives to offset the cost. He said the conceptual design plan is "a smart idea," but the budget will ultimately decide when the project gets under way.
Chronister said he would like to make a decision on proceeding "sooner rather than later," within the next couple of months, as a courtesy to the president judge.
But the underlying need for the project is the growing court caseload, he said, and proactive efforts need to be undertaken to address crime - otherwise the caseload will continue to escalate.
Making his case: Linebaugh cited a study released before the judicial center was built, saying the 1996 and 1997 projections showed the fifth floor would be needed in 2015; that's the year it would open if design work started in 2013, he said.
But the county has actually surpassed the study's projections both in caseload and population, he said.
The study expected the county's population to reach 416,700 in 2010 and 438,000 in 2015, but the population was already 435,000 in the 2010 Census, he said.
In 1997, there were nine judges. The study projected the county would have 12 judges in 2012, but there were actually 15 judges by 2011, Linebaugh said.
There are still 15 judges, but only 12 courtrooms. The state determines the number of judges in the county based on population and caseload, which has also surpassed the study's estimates.
The study supposed there would be 7,254 criminal, 2,481 civil, and 544 orphan cases in 2015. However, there were 7,947 criminal, 5,089 civil, and 2,113 orphan cases in 2011, Linebaugh said.
Causing delays: The president judge said the caseload is causing unfair delays to case participants and is an inconvenience for courthouse staff and attorneys. Some trials have jumped from courtroom-to-courtroom as space becomes available, and others are heard in hearing rooms where people are elbow-to-elbow, he said.
He proposed cost-saving measures that would mitigate most or all of the $335,000 bond payments, including moving the office of District Judge Ronald Haskell Jr. from a leased space to the fifth floor, saving about $67,000 per year. Haskell was one of several people who spoke in favor of the proposal after Linebaugh presented his case. The proponents included some county row officers and a representative from the county's bar association.
Linebaugh said the county could save $100,000 per year ($75,000 the first year) by moving the law library to Court Administration in the judicial center. He also said the treatment courts, such as the DUI court, could be expanded if the fifth floor were finished. The treatment courts save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on imprisonment by offering intensive counseling as an option to incarceration.
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