Saturday, March 24, 2012

St. Louis County Building Reported a Disgrace

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the St. Louis County Family Court building on South Brentwood Boulevard is a disgrace. Parts of the Circuit Court building on Carondelet Avenue in downtown Clayton aren't much better.

On April 3, county voters will be asked — again — to help. Courthouse improvements were part of a more extensive measure that failed in November 2008. This time, in what is traditionally a low-turnout municipal election, Proposition S is the only countywide issue on the ballot. A four-sevenths (57.1 percent) majority is required.

No new taxes are involved. The measure would continue a property tax of 2.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, originally approved for county buildings in 1967. The tax was repurposed by voters in 1993 to build a new county jail facility. The 1993 bonds were refinanced in 1998 and will be paid off in 2013. Prop S would again repurpose the levy to finance a 20-year, $100-million bond issue for court buildings.

Prop S would build a new Family Court Center adjacent to the main courthouse, which would undergo major renovation. The owner of a home with a market value of $200,000 now pays about $10.64 a year to pay off construction bonds. That would continue if the measure were approved.

The Family CourtCenter at 501 S. Brentwood Blvd. is notorious for its dreadful parking situation; things get worse inside. Juvenile and family court caseloads have quintupled since the building was completed in 1972. The entire juvenile justice model has changed.

Most juvenile offenders now are released to community-based centers, but some still are held in basement cells. Other cells are used for counseling. Common areas are used for classrooms. Pipes are fireproofed with asbestos.

Upstairs, the waiting areas are jammed, with victims and their alleged perpetrators waiting in the same room. Hallways are stacked with boxes of case files. The computer age has overloaded the electrical and heating and cooling systems.

Renovating the building is not practical. The building would have to be gutted and operations moved off site during asbestos mitigation. Selling the prime real estate it occupies should help offset the cost of new construction.

At the main courts building in downtown Clayton, opened in 1972, security measures and poor access mean it can take half an hour just to get into the building. Getting upstairs to the courtrooms or sixth-floor jury assembly room is daunting because escalators often are broken and elevators are slow. A combination of overloaded electrical systems, elderly and handicapped jurors on the sixth floor, rooms full of paper and no sprinkler system makes the place a fire marshal's nightmare.

If bonds are approved, about $10 million would be spent to deal with the issues. Jury assembly would be moved to the first floor. Access and security would be streamlined. Divorce and domestic violence courtrooms could be downsized with separate waiting rooms for plaintiffs and defendants. Prop S supporters say $1 million a year could be saved on maintenance costs alone.

The county's judicial circuit is by far the busiest in the state. Providing safe and secure access to justice is a core function of government. The county's debt load, less than 1 percent of the allowable limit, is very low. So are interest rates. Taxpayers will never get more for their money.

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