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New federal courthouses in Nashville, Chattanooga will waste millions, report says

By   /   April 26, 2013  /   Comments Off

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Taxpayers may soon shell out at least $144 million to replace the federal courthouse in downtown Nashville with a larger building, even though a new audit suggests a replacement isn’t needed.

In a new report, officials with the U.S. Government Accountability Office found fault with a plan to spend $1 billion of taxpayer money on 12 new federal courthouses nationwide. Of the 12, two are in Tennessee — the proposed courthouse in Nashville and another in Chattanooga.

IN USE: The U.S. federal courthouse in Nashville, as it appeared in the 1950s. The building is still in use today

IN USE: The U.S. federal courthouse in Nashville, as it appeared in the 1950s. The building is still in use today

Keith Throckmorton, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, told Tennessee Watchdog the current federal courthouse in Nashville needs replacing with a larger building.

Mark Goldstein, who oversaw publication of the GAO report, said his findings proved differently.

“The criteria for any new federal courthouses was that there had to be a need for a minimum of two extra courtrooms,” Goldstein said.

“The federal courthouse in Nashville, though, currently has more courtrooms than it does judges. In Chattanooga, meanwhile, its federal courthouse has the same number of judges as it does courtrooms. According to the rules specified by federal judicial officials, 10 of the 12 proposed federal courthouses don’t actually need to be built. There is a danger of spending tax dollars when government officials don’t actually know what the most urgent projects are.”

Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., are the only two cities on the list that have a genuine need for at least two extra courtrooms, and thus new buildings, Goldstein said.

With the exception of a new federal courthouse in Mobile, Ala., Congress has not appropriated any of the money necessary to build new courthouses.

Congress has given money, though, for federal officials to obtain land for and design most of the proposed courthouses, including the one in Nashville.

The proposed new federal courthouse in Chattanooga and another in Des Moines, Iowa, are the only two that have not received design funding, according to the report.

Throckmorton told Tennessee Watchdog he was aware of the GAO report but not familiar enough with its contents to comment.

“Frankly, we’ve been in a waiting mode for so long now for construction funding that I kind of just take things with a grain of salt when they come through,” Throckmorton said. Federal Courthouse GAO

Debbie Poplin, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said she had not received any official word of the GAO report and had no comment.

The report also says the $1 billion estimate that federal judicial officials presented for the costs of the 12 new courthouses is flawed. GAO officials said the new courthouses would probably cost more than three times the stated amount, around $3.2 billion. Furthermore, federal judicial officials did not do enough to consider less costly alternatives, according to the report.

The report lists Savannah, Ga.San Antonio and Norfolk, Va., as only a few of the cities in line to replace their current federal courthouses. Of the 12 cities, Nashville is at the top of the list to receive construction funding.

Federal officials have overseen the construction of at least 78 new federal courthouses throughout the country since the early 1990s, according to the report. A 2010 audit revealed that federal officials constructed those buildings larger than necessary because of poor planning.

“Specifically, 33 federal courthouses completed from 2000 to 2010 included 3.56 million square feet of extra space that cost an estimated $835 million to construct and $51 million annually to operate and maintain,” the report said.

The United States has 94 federal judicial districts — one for each state, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories, organized into 12 regional circuits.

The GAO, meanwhile, is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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