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Santa Rosa County commissioners voted this morning to move ahead with plans to construct a new courthouse in Downtown Milton.

The issue of where to build a new judicial center has been a subject of ongoing debate in the county. The current courthouse is nearly 90 years old, is beset by safety issues, and is too small. Agencies housed in the courthouse have long since outgrown the available space, spilling over into portable additions behind the current building.

In a non-binding vote in 2014, a downtown Milton location received the most votes, but some commissioners have argued that voters were not fully aware of the additional costs that will be required to build in downtown Milton due to land acquisition and other issues.

Commissioners voted to approve the downtown Milton recommendation on a 5-2 vote, with commissioners Bob Cole and Don Salter voting no. Both Cole and Salter have advocated for other sites. The current courthouse is located in Milton — the county seat — but some have favored building a new courthouse in Pace or other areas in which land is cheaper and construction less constrained by Milton’s street grid.

Under the current proposal, a three-story, 135,000 square foot judicial center would be built just south of the existing courthouse, on vacant land bounded by Elmira, Pine, and Willing streets. Parking for the courthouse would be constructed south of Pine Street. Consultants presented commissioners with two options for parking configuration, as the site in question is partially occupied by wetlands. Depending on which option commissioners choose to move forward with, between 300 and 400 spaces would be constructed, and review by the Army Corps of Engineers may or may not be necessary.

The total cost of the project is estimated to be around $47 million, and it’s uncertain how that amount will be funded. Santa Rosa County residents in 2014 voted down a proposed one-cent sales tax to fund the courthouse project, and rejected other tax measures in 2002. Commissioners plan to bring another one-cent tax proposal to voters again later this year, but the increase is likely to face similar opposition.

“The current cost of the proposed new courthouse will never get approval of the citizens,” said resident and watchdog Jerry Couey, who favors a smaller courthouse design and three-year tax increase versus the ten years that commissioners have discussed. “It is my belief that a 70,000 square foot building attached to the current courthouse with money to properly rehabilitate may pass. With a three year 1% sales tax and some county funds I think that has the best chance for passage.”

“As I stated at the last [county commission] meeting, ‘It’s not about what you want, it is about what the taxpayers are willing to pay,'” Couey said.

See consultant HOK’s presentation about the Downtown Milton courthouse plan:

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