Chief justice wants new downstate Family Court buildings

 

13dsn Family Court by .

The current Family Court in Dover along Martin Luther King Boulevard, was built in 1988. Chief Justice Leo Strine formally requested $5 million in capital funding this year. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — Chief Justice Leo Strine is again requesting the state provide funding for new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties.

The current courts, built in 1988, are cramped and even unsafe, court officials said. In the Kent County building, prisoners and judges use the same elevator, there are only a few holding cells and offices are small. The Kent building needs to be twice as large for the population it serves, and the Sussex facility is one-third the size it should be, according to judicial standards.

Leo Strine by .

Leo Strine

Building standards were not as stringent when the courts were developed, and in addition to design flaws, the facilities are aging.

The court system has been seeking funding for new buildings for several years and was allocated $500,000 this fiscal year for preliminary engineering.

Appearing before top budget officials Thursday, Chief Justice Strine formally requested $5 million in capital funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

“The Family Court facilities in Dover and Georgetown suffer from serious deficiencies, both from an operational and a security standpoint,” he said in prepared remarks.

He also is seeking $2.5 million in General Fund money for operating expenses, money that would cover previous unfulfilled requests made by the chief justice. Of that total, about $1.15 million would go to providing parking supplements for Wilmington judiciary employees. Many court employees in the city make less than $35,000 and end up spending approximately $1,700 annually on parking, which is not provided by the state.

“It’s just a fairness issue,” Chief Justice Strine said in prepared remarks. “It’s long overdue to be addressed. It disproportionately affects our workforce because of their heavy concentration in Wilmington.”

During his remarks, Chief Justice Strine touted the court’s move toward electronic filing, which can save time and money. He also called for the state to reverse the trend of declining funds going to the court system. The judiciary is receiving $95.1 million from the General Fund this year. The percentage of overall budget money given to the courts is down slightly from a high of 2.8 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 2.4 percent this year.

The chief justice said Thursday he wants to transfer about 14 employees to full-time positions. Some law clerks and security officers are technically labeled as casual/seasonal employees, despite the fact they work full time.

As casual/seasonal designees, they do not receive benefits. Calling the workers’ situation an “injustice,” the chief justice asked for the state to convert the positions.

“This is an important matter of equity and morale,” he said in prepared remarks. “Fairness requires that persons working in the state system on a full-time basis should receive the same benefits provided to full-time employees.”

Office of Management and Budget Director Ann Visalli noted fiscal year 2017 is expected to be tight but she sees the need for his request.

The judiciary’s asking for $5 million in capital spending would be another step in the process toward developing two new, larger Family Court buildings. That funding would pair with $5 million generated by court fees.

The judiciary is currently conducting a study to determine the timetable and cost of two new courts.

Several members of the public spoke after the chief justice, affirming his request for better facilities. Victims often cross paths with their abusers in the downstate buildings, speakers said, and there are no private facilities for lawyers to confer with their clients.

“I’ve actually witnessed criminal activity take place in the Family Court building,” attorney Jim McGiffin said. “I was in the Family Court parking lot. I actually was the subject of criminal activity, where somebody made remarks to me which were threatening in nature, and he ended up being arrested and convicted.”

Chief Justice Strine said afterward he did not want to speculate as to the cost of the buildings or how long they would take to develop, although he noted it would not be cheap. Sites in Dover and Georgetown, respectively, would first have to be found and then purchased.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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