Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, March 24, 2013
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Courthouse woes ongoing

Some $900,000 in renovations to the Freeman Justice Center should be completed by the end of the year, but those cost overruns and a looming lawsuit are casting a shadow over the project.

The revamped Key West state courthouse originally was to cost $13.8 million, but overruns and security issues spiked the final cost to $18.1 million.

It's just four years old, but design oversight in the entrance has been a headache since its 2008 opening, spurring two lawsuits among three different firms involved in its construction.

Monroe County has a lawsuit pending against the former architect, Jose Gonzalez, whom it fired in October 2005 amid accusations of mismanagement and safety issues. The county filed a civil lawsuit in circuit court against Gonzalez in 2008 for more than $500,000 in light of design flaws such as acoustic issues in the courtrooms, the small lobby that has been a complaint since day one and other oversights, said County Attorney Bob Shillinger.

That trial is scheduled for June 17 in Key West before 11th Judicial Circuit Judge Barbara Areces of Miami. All the Keys judges (Monroe County is the 16th Judicial Circuit) recused themselves because they work in the building, Shillinger said.

He declined to comment on the specifics of the pending lawsuit.

Meanwhile, another legal row over a final $380,000 payment to two companies involved in the construction -- Tower Group Inc. or Baron Manufacturing, a subcontractor the company hired to store some wooden trim used in the new courthouse -- was settled out of court last year, said Tower Group attorney Larry Leiby of Fort Lauderdale.

The county never disputed the amount owed, just which company it should pay.

It was agreed that the county would pay Tower Group Inc., which in turn paid Baron Manufacturing, Leiby said.

All the legal wrangling drew the ire of County Mayor George Neugent Wednesday as the County Commission was discussing authorizing about $236,000 in additional tax money to pay Sea-Tech Construction, based in Deerfield Beach, to begin the long discussed lobby renovation.

Courthouse workers have been complaining about the lobby's cramped space since the new courthouse opened.

The new lobby will be about three times its current size, with two additional metal detectors.

The small lobby often leads to lines extending into the parking lot, an uncomfortable wait in hot or rainy weather.

Neugent described the ongoing woes of the Freeman Justice Center as "beyond frustrating," particularly the legal wrangling that continues.

"Is capital punishment an option in that particular case?" he asked sarcastically at the meeting.

"I know I'm venting here, but this is beyond frustrating."

The good news is that construction crews are on schedule with converting storage areas into a new $600,000 drug court in the back of the building near Thomas Street, said Monroe County Project Management Director Jerry Barnett.

D.L. Porter Constructors Inc., based in Sarasota with offices in Key West, is the primary contractor for the drug court, Barnett said.

Work on the lobby is to begin after that project is done.

"The drug court is finally going to have a permanent home," said Trial Court Administrator Holly Elomina. "They've been in rented space for years and have never had their own place in the courthouse and in a county-owned facility."

The drug court work is coming along, Barnett said.

"The new floor is in and the framing is up ... the rough electric, rough plumbing and A/C is in and they should be ready to get the drywall up," he said.

"The doors and windows are in and they've started with the exterior."

Elomina looks forward to the lobby expansion.

"The lobby is finally going to provide for appropriate space for the number of litigants and visitors in the building and out of the elements."

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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