Plans will proceed to construct a $51-million Delaware County courts building despite warnings that the project is too expensive.

Plans will proceed to construct a $51-million Delaware County courts building despite warnings that the project is too expensive.

Delaware County commissioners Glenn Evans and Jim Ward last week voted to pursue final designs and owner's representative services for a 135,000-square-foot county courts facility to house the county's common pleas and juvenile courts, as well as their affiliated offices.

The two overruled fellow commissioner Kris Jordan, who twice previously voted against the project and cited cost concerns. They also disregarded the county auditor, treasurer and prosecutor, who over the past two months have called to reduce the scope and price of the project amid an anticipated county budget shortfall and economic uncertainty.

The commissioners now will solicit final designs for a courts facility to be next door to the Rutherford B. Hayes Building on North Sandusky Street from Columbus-based DesignGroup. They also plan to contract for additional owner's rep services from Columbus-based Pizzuti Cos., which is helping to manage the project for the county.

To date, the county has spent $1.3-million for services from DesignGroup and Pizzuti.

While the planning work goes forward, the commissioners said contracts with the architect and owner's rep would include clauses allowing the impending board of county commissioners to back out of the project.

This January, at least two new commissioners will take office; Evans and Ward were defeated last May in the Republican primary election. Jordan could be gone if he wins a bid for the Ohio House of Representatives 2nd district.

"I think we need to go ahead with the previously outlined amount, size and all of the courts building and leave it up to the next board (of commissioners) as far as bonding goes," Ward said. "Doing it halfway is a nice way of saying we're going to do it half- ...; I'm not going to say the other word."

For the better part of the past decade, the county has sought options to address security and space concerns for its county justice services. The Delaware County Common Pleas Court is housed in the 138-year-old county courthouse, and space is leased on Sandusky Street at about $245,000 a year for the county's juvenile and probate courts.

Last June, DesignGroup developed preliminary plans for a $51-million, courts building with 16 hearing rooms.

However, the county's budget commission -- consisting of county auditor Todd Hanks, county treasurer Dale Wilgus and county prosecutor Dave Yost -- have said the county can't afford $51-million in debt. Hanks also said he won't sign off on the sale of bonds to fund the project, which the commissioners initially hoped to complete this month.

Last week, Hanks reiterated that the county cannot afford the project being planned.

"With the spending the commissioners have forthcoming this year, we've projected a budget deficit of $5.5-million," Hanks said. "I have yet to hear any direction out of the commissioners' office on how they're going to address the shortfall this year, let alone next year.

"The commissioners have created a perfect storm for economic disaster for Delaware County."

In taking the action last week, Evans and Ward chose against an alternate plan to design a 62,000-square-foot courts building which could house the juvenile court for the next five to seven years. Under that plan, the common pleas court would remain in the current courthouse for the time being, and a $30-million to $35-million courts building would be constructed to allow for expansion.

They intend to fund the new courts building through county sales taxes, which were increased to 0.75 percent in May 2007 and made permanent. An additional $3.5-million is expected to be generated annually by those taxes, which in 2007 yielded $36.1-million, according to county administrator Dave Cannon.

However, those additional tax revenues are expected to be somewhat offset by a 0.8-mill property tax rollback authorized by the commissioners last month. Hanks estimates the rollback will reduce county tax collections by $1.3-million.

"Most of the professionals that came in determined we needed something more," Ward said. "However, we have to live within our means.

"We can afford this. It's not a matter of can't afford."

nellis@thisweeknews.com