During her State of the City speech when Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman stressed cooperation among government entities, she mentioned the city may leave the county’s Regional Justice Center and build its own municipal courthouse.
Immediately, I thought of the impact on the traffic ticket-paying public. Would that be user-friendly for them?
I have a suggestion. If space is at a premium at the Regional Justice Center — and it is — move both the Las Vegas Municipal Court and the Las Vegas Justice Court out into one building. Most people have no idea whether they received a traffic ticket or a misdemeanor fine in the city of Las Vegas or in the county’s jurisdiction.
The judges in the know, Chief District Judge Betsy Gonzalez, Chief Municipal Judge Cedric Kerns and Chief Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure all confirmed that no discussions along that line had occurred or been considered.
“You have an excellent idea,” Gonzalez said.
“I’m always open to discuss anything that improves access to justice,” Bonaventure said.
“We’re not closed to any idea,” Kerns said.
Even Las Vegas Councilman Bob Beers, the council’s best numbers guy, called it “a good idea, it just takes two bosses who need to talk to each other.”
One selling point of building the $185 million Regional Justice Center, which opened in 2005, was that the courts would be consolidated instead of scattered. People could find the Las Vegas Justice Court and the Las Vegas Municipal Court at the same site. Rather than wander around downtown trying to figure out which court was where, they now wander around one building.
District Court and the Supreme Court were both there, too.
“We had already outgrown it when we moved in,” said Gonzalez. “For about 10 years, officials have talked about how to handle this (space shortage).”
It worsened when the District Court rose from 26 to 36 judges to keep up with population growth.
The Nevada Supreme Court was the first to abandon the center, leaving the 17th floor to move to a new building at Clark Avenue and Fourth Street, which will also house the three-judge appellate court. It should open in February under a lease-buyback agreement. The developer pays to build, the court rents and eventually buys. Officials insist it’s a cost savings over paying rent at the center. The developer estimated its cost at $20 million.
The city wants a similar agreement, looking for a developer to build a municipal court for no more than $55 million, taking the position that a lease-buy back is fiscally responsible. The developer chosen would build it and the city would lease it for as much as 25 years with an option to buy it after three years.
The justice center wasn’t built as a long-term facility and was a fiasco from the start.
Clark County sued the contractor, AF Construction, blaming it for delays and cost overruns. When the county lost, the contractor was awarded $51.2 million. With all the legal fees, interests and other costs, county taxpayers paid out more than $95 million for the county’s poor management of the justice center construction.
Dana Hlavac, the administrator of the Las Vegas Municipal Court, said that in 2016, “roughly 63 percent of our payments are currently made in a form other than someone appearing at the courthouse.” For those without computer access or a credit card, Kerns said the new municipal court building is planned to be within 1,000 feet of City Hall, so it’s not as if someone would have to walk long distances if they find themselves in the wrong court.
A new muni court building would house six judges and 220 employees for a cost under $55 million.
For comparison, the cost of the latest elementary school for 850 children is $28 million.
There may be legitimate reasons why my suggestion won’t pan out, but it’s worth discussing, especially since city and county chief judges say they get along fine.
The city and county should at least consider other long-term options that provide space and also make it easier for the public to go to court.
Learn from the center’s poor planning instead of leaving it in a rush.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column runs Thursdays. Leave messages for her at 702-383-0275 or email email@example.com. Follow @janeannmorrison on Twitter.