Monday, September 08, 2008

Kentucky courthouse building program questioned

A Kentucky initiative to build large judicial centers in many rural counties leaves many wondering if the construction is the best use of tax dollars. In a series of articles in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Linda Blackford points out that some of the courthouses in smaller counties are about the same size as those in counties with four times the population.

In 1998, Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert, who recently retired, started a project to build "a new or renovated justice center in every county in the state that needed one." With 120 counties, Kentucky has more counties per capita than any state but Nebraska, and more in actual number than any but Georgia and Texas. Some are losing population; a Herald-Leader headine reads, "Grandeur comes as populations fall."

Supporters of the project say that it is necessary in order to bring much needed space, security and technology to the justice system, as well as promoting regard for the system. But others say it is poor stewardship. The average courthouse in more-populated areas has between 1 to 2 square feet for each resident in its jurisdiction. The planned Carlisle County Judicial Center in far Western Kentucky averages 7 square feet per person, at a cost to the state of $2,500 per resident.

The state builds the centers for counties and provides rent money to pay off bonds. "If something jeopardized state funding, the counties would ultimately be on the hook for something many of them could not afford," Blackford writes. "In Wolfe County, for example, loss of the $1 million paid annually by the state for use of the justice center would wipe out half of the county's annual budget." (Read more: Part 1 and Part 2 of the series)

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