At this point, the single most important undertaking for the county is to determine the degree of danger that the main courthouse (located at 73 W. Flagler St.) poses to the safety of the people currently using it, and set in motion a plan to immediately address the situation.
Commissioner Juan C. Zapata is to be commended for presenting a resolution that seeks to fast-track the existing GOB bond moneys (approximately $78 million) to complete the repairs to this historic landmark. I support this initiative; moreover, the following points should be considered.
1. Funding — The issuance of the bonds was approved 10 years ago, and the use of the money fits within the definition of the referendum that approved them. So let’s simply approve the funding — expedite the bidding and permitting of the contract — and complete the restoration work that has been ongoing now for quite a few years. And let’s do it pronto!
2. Maximum Use of the Main Courthouse — We should not be so intent on moving all of the judges from 73 W. Flagler. Sixteen out of 31 judges now occupy the six floors which were designed for the judicial branch. Moreover, the courtrooms on the sixth floor (in particular, Room 6-1) have been renovated and are quite functional — even beautiful. (The Dade County Bar, under the leadership of Joe Serota, should be credited for raising over $1 million for these restoration efforts.) The remaining floors, which are not properly designed for courtroom use, should be designated for county administrative offices.
3. Branch Courts — As to the remaining judges, it is time to look for other facilities in other parts of the county which can either be converted or torn down and rebuilt with a view to adding branch courts in areas presently not served. Until now, Miami-Dade County has been served by five branch county courts (Coral Gables, North Dade Justice Center, Hialeah, Miami Beach and Caleb Center) besides the courthouse downtown. (Note: County courts house traffic, misdemeanors and civil cases where the amount in dispute is less than $15,000. They are not particularly needed downtown, since many people represent themselves in small claims procedures, and, frankly, disputes under $15,000 do not need to be resolved in the downtown government district where rents are high, parking is exorbitant and traffic can be maddening.)
4. Other Facilities — Let’s identify existing county office buildings that can either be retrofitted for court use, or sold to the private sector, with a view to injecting the proceeds into new facilities. The county has 18 administrative buildings and one wonders how many of these could be consolidated into the Stephen P. Clark Center (SPCC). A more ambitious option would be to sell off the eastern section of the SPCC, which was informally appraised at close to $200 million.
Folks, that amount is precisely what is needed to provide a new court building for the 15 judges currently using the upper floors of the main courthouse.
So let’s agree to move forward by addressing the immediate problems at 73 W. Flagler. Let’s make use of all available funds, and efficiently utilize the array of county facilities at our disposal. We cannot afford to be paralyzed where it concerns the judicial needs of the people we serve.