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Peyton gives in on courthouse cost

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By MARY KELLI PALKA

The Times-Union

Mayor John Peyton proposed Tuesday to increase the budget for the new Duval County Courthouse complex to $268 million -- after a year of pledging to keep it to $232 million.

Peyton said the additional money is necessary to help build a big enough courthouse to accommodate users through the next couple of decades and to deal with escalating construction costs.

"Most importantly, the increases will be funded by lawbreakers," he said.

That's because Peyton has proposed raising $57 million for the project with revenue from a new $15 surcharge added to moving traffic citations. The remaining $211 million will come from the voter-approved half-cent sales tax that funded the Better Jacksonville Plan.

The larger budget will allow Peyton to restore some items he cut out earlier this year -- a seventh floor, two wings, underground parking for judges and upgraded quality of materials. The additions mean the courthouse, when it opens to the public, would have space for 43 courtrooms, though 12 would be shelled on the fifth floor.

Under the $232 million plan, the courthouse would have 31 courtrooms and about 711,000 gross square feet, said Chris Boruch, the city's project manager. He said under the new proposal, the size goes up to 872,115 gross square feet.

Peyton said Tuesday he was confident he could build the complex, going up at the corners of Monroe and Clay streets downtown, for $268 million. It's expected to be complete by December 2007.

The City Council would have to approve using the surcharge and increasing the courthouse budget. Peyton's office hopes to introduce a bill to the council next week.

When questioned Tuesday, some council members, while supportive of Peyton's new proposal, weren't as sure the new budget would be enough.

"It better be," said Councilman Reggie Fullwood, adding he was surprised Peyton would even use a new number.

"I think as the mayor gets more experienced, the Mayor's Office won't back themselves in a corner this way," Fullwood said.

'A user fine'

Council President Elaine Brown said she's skeptical about meeting the $268 million proposed budget, but she supports it because it's putting some of the construction burden on people who speed and break other traffic laws.

"That truly is a user fine," Brown said.

City officials estimate they can collect $3.5 million to $4.5 million each year from the surcharges added to speeding tickets, driving under the influence and other traffic offenses. In the first two years, Peyton would use $7 million from the surcharges. In the following years, the money would pay the debt on the issuance of about $50 million in bonds.

Other council members, including Warren Alvarez, Kevin Hyde and Art Shad, said they were more concerned about having a building that's functional for years to come, even if it costs more money. Councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins said voters were promised 43 courtrooms and that's what the the city should deliver.

Councilman Lad Daniels said he wants more time to research the issue before deciding whether to support the proposal. Councilman Art Graham said he doesn't support Peyton's proposal.

"I can't understand why you can't build a county courthouse for $190 million," Graham said.

When Peyton entered office in July 2003, he said he inherited an over-budget courthouse from former Mayor John Delaney. Peyton said he cut about $50 million from the budget but was still only able to promise a cap of $232 million instead of the original $211 million budget.

New payment plan

He proposed paying for the extra $21 million by using money now spent to lease space for court-related functions to issue bonds.

Under Peyton's latest plan, the lease money, about $1 million a year, would go back into the general fund to be spent elsewhere.

Some council members said they'd like to see that money go to pay for some road expenses. The Better Jacksonville Plan's road projects are over budget by about $71 million and another $45 million is needed to expand some of the projects.

For the past year, Peyton was adamant about the $232 million number, telling people at most public speaking engagements that the budget wasn't moving. In May, when Chief Judge Donald Moran said he wouldn't move into the new courthouse if Peyton didn't make it more functional, safe and capable of handling more people, Peyton said, "I'm not moving either --232 is the number."

Asked repeatedly Tuesday if he felt he had broken a promise to taxpayers, Peyton wouldn't answer, saying only he based his earlier decisions on information provided by Jacobs Facilities Inc.

"I made a decision based on information from a previous program management team I had no confidence in," Peyton said.

The mayor fired Jacobs in April after an audit from a South Carolina-based company said there was redundancy in the project's management and that the complex was again over budget. Several weeks later, in May, Peyton decided to cut some features from the building. He made those decisions with help from his new Chief Operating Officer, Dan Kleman, who started March 1.

$232 million not enough

On Tuesday, Peyton said Kleman hadn't been with the office long enough to have time to do a detailed review of the project and the audit was also not that thorough at that time. As more information became available, Peyton said, it was clear he couldn't build the courthouse complex for $232 million.

Former Mayor Jake Godbold, a friend of Peyton's, said the mayor told him it was the wrong move politically but it made good business sense.

While Godbold said he disagrees with Peyton's decision and would prefer the city start the project over again, he said Peyton acknowledged he was breaking his promise to the public.

"It's kind of a 'read my lips' kind of a thing," Godbold said, referring to the line that then-President Bush used in 1988 when he said he wouldn't raise taxes and then did.

One of the biggest things driving Peyton's decision was information that building two wings now would cost $22 million, but building them a few years later -- as he had been proposing -- could cost about $50 million.

In May, the Mayor's Office received information from staff that the costs could be as high as $37 million to build the wings in 2013, when some people thought they'd be needed. If the wings are added back on, that would expand the basement space as well, which would mean judges would get underground parking.

Peyton also said Tuesday he wanted higher-quality products used in the courthouse, such as stone floors instead of carpet. He said the materials wouldn't make the building grand, but instead functional and durable.

"Failure to invest the quality of material necessary would just be shifting the cost to future administrations," Peyton said.

Moran, who along with other judges and Clerk of Court Jim Fuller had been lobbying council members to increase the $232 million budget, said he thinks Peyton made the right decision, even if it doesn't include putting back into the designs a dome at the top of the building.

"I think in the long run, people will hail him as a visionary," Moran said.

mary.palkajacksonville.com, (904) 359-4104

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stor..._16394358.shtml.

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I kind of feel bad for Peyton being forced to give in but I think that he made the right decision. It should have been that way from the beginning for such a prominent building in the area. It is the smart choice to make it better now than facing costs down the road. Great news! Will there be a new revision of the design?

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Yes, there will be a new revision. The extra money will be used to add a 7th floor, two addition expansion wings and for material upgrades. Basically everything, except the dome, is seems to be back online.

Its past time to wrap this monster up and start construction. Will the rising cost of concrete and steel, if construction is delayed a little longer, $268 million won't be enough to build this complex.

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This has gone on for soooo long! I'm glad it's finally (I hope) over. We won't get a dome, but I'm counting my blessings for what we will get. December 2007 is so far away. When they voted for the Better Jacksonville Plan, wasn't it supposed to open in 2005?

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