The space it takes to find space
Happy Monday! Today’s blog subject is government buildings.
Hang with me. There’s a point here.
We have numerous government buildings in this county. Excluding schools, let’s see if I can do this off the top of my head: Inverness City Hall, Crystal River City Hall, Courthouse, Courthouse Annex, Historic Old Courthouse, West Citrus Center (Meadowcrest) Citrus County Resource Center, Lecanto Government Building, Citrus County Health Department.
I probably missed a few.
Commissioner Rebecca Bays believes that’s way too many government buildings. At a recent county commission meeting, Bays suggested a singular building to house all local governments.
The county is about to spend millions of dollars renovating government space for judges that isn’t even a permanent solution to their crowding problem.
Bays wanted none of it.
“I’m not for putting another dime into any of this,” she said.
Her alternative: Create an office space master plan, partner with the city of Inverness to move everybody into one building, and put the other buildings on the market. Commissioners Holly Davis and Chairman Ruthie Davis Schlabach seemed on board with the idea.
Commissioner Diana Finegan, who is quickly becoming a voice of reason, pointed out the obvious:
“If we’re giving up buildings, we have to build one first. That’s going to be wildly expensive. In the meantime, we can’t NOT take care of our buildings.”
So let’s go there.
First off, Inverness and the county have had on-and-off discussions about combining building space for YEARS. Decades.
Former City Manager Frank DiGiovanni once presented an elaborate government campus idea to the county that everyone LOVED. Notice it’s not there today. Details, details.
The last time county commissioners had a detailed, serious conversation about Inverness office space was in 2010 when the late former Commissioner Dennis Damato was tasked to look at the issue. He came up with a plan that made a lot of sense: Make the Courthouse a true courthouse and relocate all the non-court functions.
The suggestion went nowhere. Worse, the board voted 3-2 in 2016 against bringing in an office-space consultant.
So we're still winging it.
It’s with those memories in mind that my ears perk up when I hear commissioners talk about office space.
This is where County Administrator Steve Howard needs to step in. Where is the strategic planning? The long-range look? What do the experts say about government offices in the next 10-20 years? I would think with things becoming more digital that we’d be spending less time in government buildings, not more.
But I’m not a government building expert. You know who else isn’t an expert? A judge.
Judges came to the county in 2021 with an idea: Hey, the old Coke building that housed the supervisor of elections for decades is now empty. Let’s move some county court judges in there, maybe also a holding cell for felony prisoners, and an enclosed catwalk between the Coke building and Courthouse to transport the prisoners back and forth.
Oh, and this is temporary, they said. Eventually we’ll need much more.
County commissioners apparently left their common sense at home that day, because they went for it.
The estimate was $2 million. It’s now doubled. (At that time, the idea was to use $2 million from the pandemic-related American Rescue Plan. I haven’t heard any different.)
I don’t know what happened between then and now. The county cleared out the building, but the goal of having it opened for court cases by now apparently fizzled. I was surprised to learn a few days ago that the county hasn’t even approved the designs yet and we’re still another year away from this court annex holding hearings.
Since we’re still in the very early stages, I have an idea.
Go with Damato’s plan. Move the county commission, administration and all non-court people to the Coke building. It’s perfect for government offices. And super convenient for citizens who wouldn’t have to walk through metal detectors to see their county commissioner.
Bring in an expert to look at the Courthouse space and determine how best to fit all court functions there. Make the courthouse a true courthouse. (One caveat: I’d leave the county commission chambers in the Courthouse because it’s used for many purposes, including court hearings.)
So, bottom line: Bays is right that the county needs a master plan. The county should consider bringing in a consultant who will look at ALL county government space and tell us what we’re dealing with.
Until then, hold the horses. It won’t cost us a dime to get it right.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.