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Full court press: noun (from basketball) an aggressive defensive strategy or (conversely) a strong concerted offensive effort to achieve or get something until you do get it

Our County Council has been experiencing a full court press (double entendre intended) to pass the most expensive issue before them this month – authorizing funding for the proposed new Circuit Courthouse. Unfortunately, there has been almost no press coverage to make the broader citizenry aware of concerns over a lack of details and desired research into allegations of irregularities.

Through a complex Public Private Partnership (P3) the new courthouse will be designed and constructed and then maintained over a 30 year lease period by a private company formed specifically to perform this function for Howard County.

The most frequently heard reason for needing a new court house has been that the current court house is overcrowded. Couldn’t the same be said:

  • for our schools?
  • for our roads?
  • for our emergency room?

Those testifying in favor of the new 227,000 sq. ft. facility to be constructed on the current site of the Dorsey Building on Bendix Road, all echoed how crowded and unsafe the halls in the current courthouse are.  I sure wish Judy Fisher George had been there to remind the Council of how many times her daughter has been injured in the hallways of her seriously overcrowded school! I reminded the Council that instruction actually occurs in the hallways of some of our schools these days. And let’s not forget the terrifying experience of having a loved one parked for hours on a gurney in the hall of Howard Hospital while waiting to be seen in Emergency or awaiting admission– because no rooms are available. Forgive my lack of empathy for courthouse employees and visitors, but I just don’t see that their wants should take precedent over other’s needs, especially not the needs of our children or those who lost everything AGAIN in the Ellicott City floods. The County has many needs. It is owed to the citizens that prioritization be transparent. And unrushed.

Here is the root of my discontent. Perhaps after reading, you too will be ready to send off a quick letter to the Council at councilmail@howardcountymd.gov to ask them to table CB 54-2018 until after their August break.  They are scheduled to vote at 10 a.m. this Friday, July 27th.

According to documentation at http://ecsmart.org the case made for a new, larger courthouse was bogus. For example:

  • Contrary to claims that we needed to accommodate a 6th judge, the State won’t grant us one because we don’t have the cases to warrant it.
  • Contrary to claims that our cases were being delayed too long, our record is actually one of the best in the state for timeliness
  • Contrary to claims that our court house is the oldest, smallest, most antiquated of our neighbors; it is not. And where did previously allocated funds for expansion and updating of the current building disappear to?

Sure everyone enjoys working in or visiting a lovely new facility with space to spread out BUT do we really NEED a facility THREE TIMES the size of the current one. [When MedStar Health decided to leave their 70,000 sq. ft. building on Sterrett Place to occupy the corner of Brokenland and Little Patuxent Parkways they only took 97,000 sq. ft. of the 200,000 sq. ft. building.  Why is our government being so much more lavish than private enterprise? Lack of business sense?]

While the new courthouse plan has been in the works for some time and much money and staff time has gone into moving it along the bidding process, it still needs further examination, including determining a baseline for comparison on whether or not the P3 approach is better or not.  What would the building cost if we did it the conventional way, like having a school built.  [The irony of the Council being poised to authorize $91 million in bonds for the project isn’t lost on me: $91 million is the same amount batted about as the price tag for the desperately needed High School #13!] But the expense of this court house doesn’t stop at $91 million. That amount just covers the $75 million lump payment in July of 2021 when the building is ready for occupancy plus fixtures, furniture and service charges.  It’s the 30 years of annual lease payments for facilities operation and maintenance that is staggering!

Council Members had questions for staff and the winning bidder during the work sessions earlier this week, including what the total cost will be. Council Chair Sigaty quipped that she needed them to provide that number because the cost estimates she heard from citizens testifying on Monday night were all over the place. Surely citizens were working from misinformation….. I listened very intently, hoping I hadn’t embarrassed myself. The $450 million estimate I stated in my testimony for HCCA was the highest one proffered that night. Well by golly, I feel like the winner of The Price is Right, coming closest– without going over! The estimate provided by the experts was $452 million over the 30 years. [But keep in mind that does not include the cost of utilities, or leasing space in 3 buildings to accommodate all the departments being dispersed from the Dorsey Building, or the cost of moving them or the occupants of the old court house to their new homes. It also doesn’t include the 4.9 million annual GoBond debt service payment for 30 years. In both the short and long run there will be numerous additional expenses NOT being defined at this time.]

I’m particularly thankful that Council members Ball and Sigaty asked so many critical questions at the work session, but why wasn’t the Council provided basic information about the deal in the first place? Why were those being questioned so cagey, (or visibly nervous,) providing only minimal details? How come it’s insisted the Council needs to pass the bill this Friday when the bid pricing is good through November 15th?

Once the Council approves the bill, there will be no turning back, no way out of the contract which obligates us to that debt. Should the economy tank or we face other disasters in the next 30+ years, the obligation to this debt must be paid first and fully.  Future Execs and Council Members will be forced to decide which other critical services and facilities won’t be funded as a result of shortfalls or taxes will need to be raised.

How come no one seems to be thinking about how the removal of the Courthouse from Old Ellicott City will further retard any recovery?  Isn’t it counterproductive to rebuild OEC and then eliminate the major customer base generated by the court house? Isn’t it pre-mature to be jumping all in with no plan for the use of the existing courthouse when it’s vacated?

Perhaps the P3 arrangement is not in our best fiscal interest. Since the public (and perhaps the Council?) haven’t seen any figures on the cost of constructing a new courthouse by the conventional means (even one double, rather than triple the size of the current one) there is no baseline to measure the expense.

I fear we have basically worked out a complex and costly P3 scheme that is analogous to a 30 year lease-to-own contract on a Ferrari…… when our Ford is still running.

I’ve only begun to touch on the numerous issues involved with this monumental decision. Act immediately, if as a taxpayer you’d like to see the Council conduct further research to assure all the issues are researched/revealed completely, from:

  • questionable urgency of need
  • to competing priorities after Ellicott City’s recently repeated destruction
  • to risking future crucial infrastructure and service needs by taking on this 30 year debt obligation
  • to contract specifics and questionable players.

Tell all the Council members to table CB 54-2018 until after their August break with one e-mail to councilmail@howardcountymd.gov or one call to 410-313-2001 —and meet me on the high road,

Susan