Yesterday Howard County Council Bill 54-2018 (the bill relating to the new circuit courthouse in Howard County) passed 4 to 1. This bill hit my radar a couple of days ago when I noticed a candidate for Howard County Council came out in opposition of approving it “for now”.
Here is more about the bill:
AN ACT pursuant to Section 612 of the Howard County Charter, approving a multi-year Project Agreement for the Design, Construction, Financing, Operation and Maintenance of the Howard County Circuit Courthouse between Howard County, Maryland and a special purpose entity formed by Edgemoor-Star America Judicial Partners for the design, construction, partial financing, operation and maintenance of a new Courthouse and related Parking Structure to be located on the Project Site located at 9250 Judicial Way (formerly known as 9240 and 9250 Bendix Road) in Ellicott City; authorizing the County Executive to enter into the Agreement and to make changes to the Agreement before executing it, under certain conditions; and generally relating to a multi-year agreement for the design, construction, financing, operation and maintenance of the Howard County Circuit Courthouse.
You can read the full text of the bill here: https://apps.howardcountymd.gov/olis/GetFile.aspx?id=15422
The bill looked like it might get tabled but the vote on that motion failed 2 – 3 (Ball & Terrasa voting yes, Sigaty, Fox & Weinstein voting no).
Then they moved forward with the bill…and voted on the two amendments…
Amendment one passed 5 – 0. Here is that amendment: https://apps.howardcountymd.gov/olis/GetFile.aspx?id=15726
Amendment two passed 5 – 0. Here is that amendment: https://apps.howardcountymd.gov/olis/GetFile.aspx?id=15727
They then went forward on voting on the bill as amended, that vote passed 4 – 1. (Ball voting no, Sigaty, Terrasa, Fox & Weinstein voting yes). Many of the council members made comments before they voted. I was able to obtain a recording the session…and now you can listen to all of the comments in this video:
I am waiting to hear (or see a post online) from Liz Walsh about this topic. I am not sure what she thinks of the two amendments and if they change her stance on the council moving forward with this bill now.
I caught some flack online about my article yesterday. That happens from time to time. I thought that a candidate for county council making a statement about a bill before the county council was noteworthy. I titled it as I read the statement…which was in opposition to the bill at this point…which came from the statement of “Please call your current council reps—or you can email all of them at once at firstname.lastname@example.org—and ask them to hold off on approving Council Bill 54, for now”. I see things as you are either for a bill or against it and I read this as against it…even with the caveat of “for now”…I took that as this candidate was against it right now. I made sure to not only post the first two paragraphs of the statement but also provide a link in the article to the full statement so that everyone had an opportunity to read the statement and make their own judgement. This was not a ding on the candidate…just noting something I thought readers would find interesting.
I have mixed feeling on candidates making comments in favor or opposition on bills…one the one hand I love knowing where candidates stand on issues and I have great respect for those willing to put themselves out there and let the public know where they stand…then I put on my political hat and see the downside in making those statements…because if you come out on the wrong side of the issue it can potentially hurt you politically in an election season.
I will say that I found it interesting that after reaching out to every other Howard County Council candidate (by tagging them on Facebook and Twitter)…I received next to no feedback about how they felt about this bill. Opel Jones did respond on Twitter with the following statement”
Definitely keeping an eye on it!
I was a bit disappointed with the lack of response…but maybe they all had their political hats on and decided to stay out of this issue.
I expect the County Executive will sign this bill quickly and we will begin to move forward on this project.
Article update: China Williams posted this Facebook comment this morning on yesterday’s Facebook post:
Since the bill has already passed, this is something of armchair quarterbacking. But here are my thoughts. Overcrowding has been cited as one of the reasons for a new courthouse. Other jurisdictions increased capacity by adding additional dockets, which prevented the need for a larger building. Has this been done in Howard County? Re the P3 arrangement, Baltimore City relies on this for its Eastside District Court and the building is poorly maintained. P3 might alleviate upfront costs but it introduces potential problems in the leasing agreement. What steps are being taken to protect the county from similar circumstances? And finally, I do question the priority of this project over other pressing infrastructure needs. I wish that there were a prioritization system for public infrastructure so that the county could address need in a systematic way.
Article update: Lisa Kim emailed me the following statement:
I do not support the new courthouse bill in its’ current form. The taxpayers of Howard County cannot be made to pay almost a half BILLION dollars for a building that’s slated to cost $145 million. This will saddle our children and grandchildren to pay for this courthouse with a $75 million payment and then $10 million a year for 30 years totaling what could be with interest $450,000,000. Meanwhile we are currently busy shuffling around children from school to school because the County has failed to build schools due to lack of money and space. There were previously much more cost effective ideas and planning to expand and improve the existing courthouse.
Simply put, the County went from a $31.6 million design and construction to upgrade and renovate the courthouse that was reported by the Baltimore Sun in April 2013 to a nearly half-billion dollar fix with a brand new courthouse. The County had a perfectly suitable plan to bring the courthouse up to date just 5 years ago for a relatively paltry $31.6 million. For whatever reason, this plan was not effectuated and the County spent millions of dollars in putting band-aids on this courthouse. For instance, the County spent approximately a million dollars to move the courthouse to the Ascend One building while extensive renovations were done to the courthouse. However, after this money was spent to make the Ascend One building suitable to temporarily house the courthouse, Judge Gelfman nixed the move citing unspecified security concerns. The temporary move never happened and the courthouse underwent renovations by closing small portions of the courthouse since 2013. Since 2013, the County has spent millions of dollars into this courthouse that was clearly outdated and had outgrown its usefulness only to propose a half billion dollar courthouse in 2018. This was, and is, not a good use of taxpayer funds.
There is no question that an updated courthouse is needed. It is woefully outdated in a number of ways. There isn’t sufficient technology to connect computers for audio/visual presentation needs in the courtrooms. There are no meeting spaces for attorneys to use with clients and other attorneys. The hallway used by courthouse staff and judges are the same hallways used to transport inmates into the courtrooms. There isn’t enough space in some courtrooms to comfortably seat a full jury with alternates. They sit extremely close to the trial table so that every conversation can be heard. Lighting and HVAC issues exist in the courthouse. All of these issues must be addressed.
There has also been a lot of misinformation promulgated in support of the new courthouse. There is never a victim of violence sitting next to the defendants because the State’s Attorney’s Office has a satellite office in the courthouse where victims and witnesses wait separately from defendants in the courtrooms. There is no need for an extra courtroom for another judge because a 6th judge has never been approved for Howard County. Judge Gelfman has been given lots of deference on her statements and stated needs but let’s remember that she owns a piece of commercial property near the new courthouse that will go up in value as law offices and related professions rent space due to its close proximity to the new courthouse. While she is a respected lawyer and judge, she has a financial interest in seeing this courthouse being moved to Bendix Road. Additionally, Judge Gelfman is retiring in September of this year so it’s interesting/surprising that the move of the courthouse matters that much to a retiring jurist.
More importantly, we need schools, the hospital is begging us for supplemental revenue, and our seniors need affordable housing. We are told we simply can’t fund these needs but we have almost half a billion dollars for a new courthouse? It is the duty of our elected officials to spend our money wisely and to represent us with our best interests at heart and spending what could be nearly $500,000,000 for a wanted, but not needed, brand new courthouse is not proper allocation over our other very serious needs. Just 5 years ago, there was a perfectly acceptable solution that cost $31.6 million. There is no explanation as to why this plan is no longer acceptable in lieu of a brand new courthouse that comes at mortgaging the future of Howard County and its citizens.
By Authority: Friends of Lisa F. Kim, Treasurer: Seong Ok Baik