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More costs for the courthouse

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Updated: 9/11/2013 11:57 pm
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Taxpayers have already spent $350 million on the new Duval County Courthouse, but the bill is getting even higher.

On the fifth floor, there are eight courtrooms that have never been used because they were never outfitted with the technology needed to properly support court cases. Now, court administrators are asking city leaders for money to finish the job.

In January, the traffic, tobacco and small claims court offices on Beach Boulevard were closed, as were two courtrooms at the Duval County jail, and all court services were consolidated within the new courthouse.

Council member John Crescimbeni supported the move, calling it a "no brainer" because the old facility was costing taxpayers $1 million a year in rent.

Court Administrator Joe Stelma tells Action News he reluctantly agreed because the old facility provided plenty of space and parking, and the new courthouse wasn't ready for increased business. Action News has learned it still isn't.

This week, city council voted to spend $347,000 to upgrade four of eight courtrooms that are sitting empty. The money to outfit them with technology was cut from the budget early on.

"The courthouse was value engineered. I suspect the decision was made to free up those dollars for something else, assuming we would come back and finish the work later on," says Crescimbeni.

But that decision is now backfiring because court administrators' workload is backing up.

Stelma say the tobacco court has more than 600 active cases, which will each take four to six weeks to process.

In addition, Jacksonville leads the country in foreclosure cases, with 23,000 on the books and another 790 new cases each month. While Stelma is being held responsible by the state Supreme Court to process them within the next two years, he says that's nearly impossible because there aren't enough working courtrooms.

The cost to complete work to all eight courtrooms will be nearly $700,000. Half will be paid using funds leftover from last year's budget, and the rest will likely be added into next year's budget.

While that means the cost of the new courthouse will continue to rise, it's money Crescimbeni thinks will pay off for taxpayers in the end.

"This is a one-time expense, and in return we're saving a ton of money by not operating a whole separate court system."

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