The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors sacrificed $86 million in capital-improvement projects Monday, instead unanimously deciding to spend the money on a courtroom complex in downtown Phoenix.
The 16-story Criminal Court Tower could cost $340 million and likely will be the county's most expensive project, filling a block bounded by First and Second avenues and Jackson and Madison streets.
Most criminal cases are tried in the downtown Phoenix Superior Court Complex, but with 40,000 felony cases filed yearly and the number projected to grow, the tower is meant to handle ever-increasing caseloads.
In shelving other projects, the board hammered home that it is committed to the tower, despite slumping revenues, a gaping hole in its budget, and bleak briefings from economists who predict the economic situation will get worse.
"There will never be a better time to build that building than right now," said Republican Supervisor Max Wilson.
To help cover court-tower costs, the board shelved a $67 million plan to expand a regional court in Mesa, a $13 million project to build a sheriff's office 911 center and crime lab, and a $6.3 million plan to knock down First Avenue Jail.
For years, county officials have squirreled away money for the judicial complex, which will add 32 courtrooms. Now's the time to spend it, they say, when prices for labor and building materials are down.
"We consider it a business decision," County Manager David Smith said. "It's one that's made apart of the ups and downs of the current economy. We've been saving money for at least eight years, and it's the right way to do economic stimulus, with the 500 jobs (that will be added during) the next three years during construction. We're doing it with cash, we're injecting that savings account back into the economy, (and) that will circulate several times, all to local employees and contractors and so on."
Kenny Harris, an assistant county manager, said, "We're going to save money . . . because of the recession. As long as the economy struggles, it's the best time for government projects to step up.
"In order to keep their businesses open, (subcontractors) are willing to do the work and reduce their profit margins and their fees to do the work. It's better to stay in business and take less money than close your doors."
The county hopes to open the court-tower doors in early 2012.
Eighteen months ago, the board gave the go-ahead to design and build the tower, and authorized spending $342.4 million. Officials have spent about $11 million, and on Monday, reduced the project's funding to $339 million. The county will break ground on the project next month, starting with storm-sewer relocation and garage demolition.
The court tower is designed at 16 floors, including two underground floors. At 682,000 square feet, it would house 32 criminal courtrooms; 22 courtrooms would be built immediately; and 10 more would be finished later.
Plans also include a jury-assembly room for the entire criminal-court complex, state-of-the-art technology, and separate waiting rooms for victims and witnesses. The tower would include judges' chambers and restorative-justice services, in which people try to repair the harm caused by crime by working in the community. by azcentral.com