War of words erupts over Federal courthouse

Local News

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — A federal judge warned in a scathing letter that the long-awaited courthouse project in Panama City will be a disaster and said the judges won’t occupy the building even after the project is completed.

Mark Walker, The Chief District Judge for the Northern District of Florida, sent a letter to the federal agency overseeing the project — the General Services Administration — describing the project as a waste of taxpayer money.

“It appears that GSA simply accepted Bay County’s word that the building was in decent shape. We now know this was not true. As it turns out, it was constructed without a vapor barrier, missing window flashing, etc. GSA leased a “pig in a poke.”

Walker stating that the court “will not occupy” the leased space at the Bay County Juvenile Justice Center.

“We do not intend to jeopardize the health and safety of our employees or the public, and we will not be complicit in the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars on such an ill-advised project.”

In his letter Walker admitted that the court agreed to the proposal when it was under bid with the GSA.

“This assumed that we could use the existing ceremonial courtroom and utilize preexisting holding cells, etc. It also assumed GSA would engage in due diligence and inspect the existing structure before signing the lease,” Walker wrote. “Neither turned out to be true.”

Walker goes on to express concern about the damage the building suffered during Hurricane Michael and says that water intrusion problems and mold will be an ongoing issue unless the building is taken down to a raw structure and rebuilt.

Finally, Walker states that since the building is ill-suited and unsafe the court will not occupy the space.

“Unless and until we are provided appropriate space, cases currently filed in Panama City will be adjudicated in Pensacola and Tallahassee.”

However, local court watchers say more is going on here than is expressed in Walker’s letter.

“When I read the letter, it had two effects on me. One, my heart sank and two, I got a little angry because I think part of what’s going on in that letter is you’ve got these judges that don’t want to drive from Tallahassee or Pensacola to come here to court so that part really annoys me,” said local attorney Waylon Graham. “We’re working so hard here to make that courthouse perfect for them and then they want to start nitpickin.”

Bob Majka, the County Manager for Bay County, said the project has a history of concern from the judiciary.

“I think that it was reduced to writing was a surprise, but it’s not uncommon in this process for tenant agencies to not be satisfied with certain parts of the project,” Majka said. “Certainly, if you recall this project began with a similar letter from a prior chief Judge indicating there would not be a federal courthouse here in Bay County.”

However, Walker’s concerns have either been addressed or will be addressed in the near future, Majka said.

“We’ve done a significant amount of mold remediation for example in the facility as a result of the hurricane and we’re getting ready to open that building back up so it didn’t mean to make a whole a lot of sense for us to do more remediation to open the building up, have it exposed again to the elements and then have to go back after the fact and do more remediation again,” Majka said. “Our project going forward will somehow be modified but we don’t know what that’ll be until we hear back from GSA.”

Majka says the issues at hand are really up to GSA and the Northern District of Florida to figure out but with or without federal court, the facility will be renovated and used.

“GSA is working through how it effects the other tenant agencies. there is more than just the federal court that was going to go in there. The federal clerk’s office, the state marshal’s office. Several other entities would occupy the facility as well so they need to sort through that,” Majka said.

He says the county has a 20 year contract with GSA with 15 years of that confirmed so financially, the county is not going to be impacted.

“The county has been honoring all of its commitments on the lease as well as GSA. It’s been a very productive relationship,” Majka said.

He also says the new Juvenile Justice Courthouse project will still be built near the Bay County Courthouse.

“Regardless of what that decision is, that does not effect the new Juvenile Justice Courthouse project in downtown Panama City. That space is still going to be necessary. We’re still obligated to GSA to provide that space,” Majka said.

As of now, the county officials are just waiting to get more direction from GSA.

“We’re simply waiting on GSA to provide a response to the letter and let us know what direction they’re going to move and then we’ll make decisions going forward,” Majka said.

Representative Neal Dunn, R-Panama City, also weighed in.

“It’s vital that people in the central Panhandle counties and the surrounding region have access to the Federal Courts here in Panama City without being forced to travel several hours. Judge Walker clearly has numerous concerns that GSA will need to address. My priority remains having a local, safe federal courthouse for the citizens of the Panhandle,” he said.

News 13 also reached out to GSA about the letter.

“The U.S. General Services Administration has received Chief Judge Walker’s letter, and we will continue to work with the Northern District of Florida, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and our lessor to develop a path forward using existing processes,” GSA officials said in a statement.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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