Ocean County officials this week embarked on an auspicious, $50 million plan to expand the Justice Complex in downtown Toms River, a goal which will consolidate the functions of the courts into one building, reduce labor costs and improve security.
The county freeholder board acknowledged the project’s high price tag, but released data that showed consolidating a patchwork of satellite buildings, leased offices and nine security checkpoints into an expansion of the existing main Justice Complex could save tax dollars in the long term. The board gave the go-ahead on Wednesday to begin the $5 million design phase of the project, with construction slated to begin in 2023 and be completed in 2025.
An analysis of the current issues facing the complex and the path toward the best solution was presented by Mott MacDonald, an international consulting and engineering firm that was hired by the county to review judiciary operations. The experts found that the county is faced with annual lease agreements in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as the upkeep and maintenance of county-owned buildings that are separate from the courthouse. For example, there are currently 13 different facilities scattered around the downtown area that serve judicial functions. Multiple family courtrooms, drug court, probation services and even a criminal courtroom are located off-premises.
“When you look at this per year, what it’s going to cost in our budget, it is affordable and it is necessary,” said Freeholder Jack Kelly.
The cost of securing court facilities is measured in the millions annually. There are nine separate security checkpoints due to the scattered nature of the buildings. The consulting firm found that each checkpoint requires the supervision of three county sheriff’s officers whose salary and benefits add up to $125,885 per year. Three offices manning nine checkpoints comes to a total cost of $3,398,895 annually. Under the proposal, building an addition onto the main Justice Complex would eliminate the need for seven of the nine checkpoints, reducing overall costs, combined with the savings from giving up leased buildings.
Currently, the leased building at 206 Courthouse Lane costs the county $171,650 per year (projected to rise to $193,250 by 2025) and the building at 213 Washington Street costs $380,940 (projected to rise to $411,000 by 2025). These buildings would be vacated, along with several county-owned outcroppings, and all functions would be located in the main complex.
The plan received the endorsement of Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford, who attended the freeholder board meeting Wednesday.
“In 1979, I became a lawyer down here and walked into the court house for the first time,” Ford said, explaining that while the physical facilities resemble the look they had back then, the services under the court system’s purview have increased. “The legislature has asked the judiciary to take on a lot more responsibilities, which has resulted in an explosion in areas that didn’t exist when I started here.”
There is also a nagging security issue driven by the nature of the current scattered setup.
“I’ve had judges in some of these out-buildings accosted by angry litigants on their way out, and what we’re really concerned about is the safety of the people of Ocean County who we service,” said Ford.
The plan proposed by Mott MacDonald, which received support from the freeholders, includes a design for 150,000 square feet of extra space and the actual construction of 120,000 square feet of space.
“The design should accommodate future additions for an extra 30,000 square feet,” said Kelly. “We’re not going to ask for dollars for it in this project, but just to make a design that will allow for that in the future.”
The additional 30,000 square feet would give the county the opportunity to add three courtrooms in the future if the need arises.
The addition to the complex would be built on its north side, roughly across the street from the existing parking deck and just below Toms River High School South.
The entire project is forecast to cost $49,172,715. The estimated cost of an addition 30,000 square feet, if it were to be added, would cost $12,293,000.