A 2-1 vote Wednesday morning ended a lengthy debate between the Bucks County commissioners over scaling back the construction of the county's $84 million justice center project.
Commissioners Charley Martin and Diane Ellis-Marseglia agreed that the $300,000 saved by not completing all three courtrooms and additional meeting rooms, was significant enough to approve the measure. The county could save as much as another $300,000 in furniture and audio/visual costs, they speculated.
The debate centers over what to do with the fifth floor of the new courthouse being built on Doylestown's Main Street.
The original plan for the fifth floor included three courtrooms, six conference rooms, two jury rooms and a jury deliberation room in the A wing, plus six conference rooms in the B wing.
The reduced plan approved on Wednesday calls for one finished courtroom, the uncompleted shells for the other two courtrooms, and four conference rooms in the A wing. The B wing would be left unfinished and completely closed off to the public until space was needed.
The approved change order results in a $264,671 credit from general contractor Ernest Bock & Sons and a $27,000 credit from the Farfield Company, the electrical contractor for the project.
"We're going to have 14 courtrooms for 13 judges instead of 16, plus 72 meeting rooms throughout the entire building," said Martin. "The materials that we already purchased for the other rooms will be stored in the closed off wing for future renovations."
Commissioner chairman Rob Loughery joined the dissent of Bucks County's General Services Director Jerry Anderson and President Judge Susan Scott. They characterized the move as not a savings but a deferral of costs that will be even higher in the future.
"By not spending the money now," said Loughery, "we're sending the costs further down the line. When we have to add these rooms, whether it's five, ten or fifteen years from now, it will cost more because of the construction index and borrowing expenses."
Scott told the commissioners that Bucks County's court caseload is too high for the county's 13 existing judges. The county really needs 19 judges, she said, adding that she petitioned the state for two more judges in 2010.
Having the courtrooms ready now would better prepare the county for any new additions to the bench.
Many of the materials for the three courtrooms, including ceiling tiles, locks and door frames, already have been purchased, and the utility work for public restrooms, electricity, HVAC and fire suppression is either finished or needs to be completed to pass code.
"It will be a major headache to complete the rooms after the building is complete and people are working there," Anderson said, in his dissent.
The debate over the number of courtrooms has been ongoing since the courthouse project began to gain real momentum four years ago. In January 2011, months before construction began, the commissioners had a similar impasse with Judge Robert Mellon.
"We do not believe we can efficiently, effectively and fairly administer justice without three additional courtrooms on the fifth floor," Mellon told the commissioners.