Last week, the Santa Rosa County Commission voted 3-1 to select property located on US 90 between Milton and Pace as the site for a new county judicial facility. A number of county residents, myself included, voiced their opinions for approximately an hour and a half prior to the vote. The majority of the citizens who spoke last Thursday voiced misgivings about the county purchasing new land for the proposed facility. My own opinion is that the Commission should have given consideration to the option of constructing a new facility on the existing courthouse property. I believe that the vote held after the discussion was carried forward hastily and in such a manner as to raise serious concerns about how the commissioners reached their decision on relocation.
First, the public debate on the location of a new judicial facility has been far too limited. Many of the people most directly affected by relocating out of downtown Milton have been unable to adequately participate in the debate due to the Commission's insistence on scheduling meetings during business hours.
Second, this Commission has never adequately explained why the current location is unacceptable for a new building. Commissioners have been quoted in this newspaper as saying that downtown Milton would be "cost prohibitive." However, no cost analysis reports or studies for the current location have been provided to the public. The Commission obtained such reports for the pieces of property they considered buying at taxpayer expense, but no data has been presented comparing the costs of the existing location with the costs of the other proposed locations. When the design firm who drew plans for the Commission was asked 14 years ago about potential issues such as sloped building sites, traffic flow, parking, and flood plain concerns, they told the Commission that there were no concerns with the existing site that could not be addressed.
When these points were raised to the Commission at last Thursday's meeting, the public was told that the problems and costs with downtown Milton were just "common sense." However, "common sense" tells me that if the Commission actually had any data, reports, expert review, or other solid basis that should exclude the existing courthouse location from consideration, they would have appealed to that source, rather than dismissively citing "common sense."
While I believe that the existing location would be the best choice for a new judicial building, there are certainly other options, such as gifted property in East Milton, which should have been considered more carefully by the Commission. Without an open and transparent consideration of the options mentioned here, I will find it difficult indeed to support any county referendum on funding a new judicial facility. It is my hope and belief that regardless of the Commission's vote last week, more members of the public, especially those most affected by proposed relocation, will continue to raise questions and require answers about the Commission's ill-advised decision.