Chief justice pushes for new Family Court buildings

 

DOVER — With both chambers passing legislation to authorize funding for preliminary work on new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties, Chief Justice Leo Strine’s dream is a bit closer to reality.

Appearing before the General Assembly’s finance committee for the court system’s annual hearing, the head of the judicial branch continued advocating for new structures in downstate Delaware. He has been pushing for the construction of updated facilities for more than a year, and court officials say the current Family Court buildings in Kent and Sussex are cramped and unsafe.

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State Court Administrator Patricia W. Griffin and Chief Justice Leo Strine go over paperwork before his JFC hearing Thursday at Legislative Hall. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

There is no timetable or cost currently associated with the projects, but the judiciary is hoping to acquire land soon.

“The good thing about Georgetown and Dover is they both have certain similar architectural styles, so you do something that fits with the communities but the same design because then you would pay for the architectural design once,” Chief Justice Strine said after the hearing. “You’d hope to get one contractor so that we could save taxpayers as much money.”

A planning group is working to identify potential spaces.

“They are really are anchors in a good way for our core cities, if you think about where they’re located, and they help the restaurants, they help everybody else, so our hope is that they’ll be right in the core of Georgetown and Dover,” he said.

The process is still in the early stages and is contingent on funding. Chief Justice Strine declined to estimate a cost or potential chronological goal because of how much remains to be decided.

He also requested the committee approve a supplement for the courts’ 550 Wilmington-based employees, who must pay to park in the city. In a revealing moment, the often blunt chief justice criticized Gov. Jack Markell’s recommended budget for shifting some salary costs from the state’s General Fund, requiring the judiciary cover them with its own funds generated through court fees.

The move came as a complete surprise, said Chief Justice Strine, who also noted several other requested initiatives were not funded.

Speaking to lawmakers, he strongly supported Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill’s request for additional funding. Mr. O’Neill last week called for the budget committee to provide more money for the Office of Defense Services, describing a need for another Kent County defense lawyer as pressing.

“We would all like if no crimes were committed, and there are some in society who would like that even if crimes were committed that we never had to pay for their cost of defense attorneys for people who are poor, but we kind of do have a Constitution and it does really require that we do those things,” Chief Justice Strine said.

Transportation

The Department of Transportation’s budget hearing followed the judiciary’s. Secretary Jennifer Cohan highlighted several major planned and current construction projects in the state, including the Camden Bypass, the West Dover connector and numerous changes to Del. 1.

Not all was positive news for the department, however, as several DelDOT employees stepped before the committee to call for higher pay and criticize proposed health care increases. The governor’s recommended budget includes higher premiums for state employees, with costs ranging from $1.98 and $19.48 per month, depending on the plan.

Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, urged the budget-writing panel to back a bill he has introduced that would provide hazard pay for certain DelDOT employees.

Gov. Markell has also put forth a pay raise for state workers, something several described Thursday as long overdue.

“I’m living from paycheck to paycheck, you know what I mean, and I’m scratching every dime I can scratch,” Paul Lee said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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