2017-05-26 / Front Page

Bill to provide free space in new court to District Attorney dies

Senior Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A bill  to provide space in the new consolidated York County courthouse in Biddeford for the York County District Attorney’s offices and funding to offset costs to the county government for extra staffing and inmate transport  was voted “ought not to pass” by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Woodsome, R-Waterboro, said while L.D. 1264 may be dead, the committee — and he — is encouraging those involved to have a conversation about the issues.

“The (judiciary) committee voted ought not to pass, but they also asked stakeholders to get together to sit down and resolve some of the issues,  which is what I was hoping would happen,” said Woodsome in a telephone interview Thursday. “If the parties are sincere and work on their issues,  I think this can be a livable and workable situation.”

The bill raised eyebrows in some quarters, because it first referenced terminating construction of the new consolidated court and continue court operations in Alfred, Biddeford, Springvale and York  — unless the state judicial department felt halting work would result in an excessive monetary loss to the state.

Woodsome said it was never his intent that the project be terminated.

“Realistically we weren’t going to change the location of the courthouse and that wasn’t my intention,” said Woodsome. He said the selection was “made well,” and that he didn’t fault the site selection committee’s choice. He said the bill was crafted the day before the deadline for submissions. “I wasn't attacking their selection,” Woodsome said. 

The new court’s location on U.S. Route 1 in Biddeford was decided by a site selection commission last year. The commission, made up of legislators, county representatives,  police chief, attorneys, judges and others began with 27 possible locations, which were gradually whittled down to the one selected. The land has been purchased from the City of Biddeford, and the $65 million courthouse project is said to be in the design stage.

The new courthouse is about 15 miles from the county-owned York County Court House in Alfred, the home of the state-run York County Superior Court and the main office of  York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery, who has pointed out inefficiencies that will be created if the prosecutors and clerical staff offices remain in Alfred.  Altogether, more than 40 prosecutors and clerical staff make up the district attorney’s office.

Woodsome’s bill referenced three provisions: Providing 20,000 square feet in the new court building for the district attorney’s office, compensating York County for the cost of additional sheriff’s office staff associated with inmate security within the building and during travel; and considering  county commissioner’s design recommendations on holding cells in the new building.

In all, 16 people testified  at the judiciary committee’s public hearing on the bill, from Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant and Sheriff Bill King, who testified against it,  to Slattery and  County Manager Greg Zinser, who testified in favor.  There were legislators testifying for and against the bill. Some who testified had been members of the site selection commission.

Slattery  testified that by statute, the district attorney is “tethered” to the courthouse. She said being 15 miles away will build delay into the system. She said county commissioners have told her they won’t fund any move of her office, that it would be housed in the current York County Court House in Alfred.

“Cases are scheduled every day — each day entails being prepared fort the next day,” said Slattery, in part. “Being housed in the courthouse allows the assistant district attorneys to use their time between court appearances to be as their desks preparing for future court events — to be speaking with victims, law enforcement officers  and defense attorneys.”

“L.D. 1264 in my opinion,  undermines the good faith bargaining that has been established between the state and the city of Biddeford as well as undermines the established rules and guidelines that were approved by the selection committee, as deemed by the Legislature,” said Casavant, himself a former legisaltor,  in part. “Quite frankly, this bill is inappropriate at this juncture of the court consolidation process.”

King’s opposition to the bill surprised some in county circles, but he said he did so for specific reasons. 

He pointed out that the bill did not reference a specific  dollar amount  to compensate for costs associated with staffing  inmate holding cells at the new court; costs associated with transporting inmates, or the compensation's impact the jail budget. The sheriff pointed out that if he had been able, he would have pitched for an office in the new court building for the civil process division, which he said would benefit consumers. He said the provision that  county commissioners’ design recommendations be taken into account for holding cells  is misplaced; that is a function that is "clearly the provision of the elected sheriff."

According to Zinser, the judiciary has offered 6,200 square feet for the district attorney's office, at $10 per square foot, in the new building, and has said the department has indicated it would be willing to extend that figure to 10,000 square feet.

Zinser pointed out that the District Attorney’s offices currently encompasses 13,000 square feet. 

He estimated the county’s increased costs, including additional corrections personnel, travel and rental space in the new court building at $600,000 to $700,000 annually.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end,”  Zinser said of the issues at hand on Wednesday.  “But its going to hurt.”

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or twells@journaltribune.com.

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