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Hernando County Commission to consider buying Tampa Bay Times building

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Tampa Bay Times is selling the building that houses its Hernando bureau. Hernando County government will consider buying that building in order to provide more courtroom space.

The move is ironic.

In 2011, the Tampa Bay Times wrote an in-depth investigative piece making the argument that Hernando County didn’t need more courtroom space. They surveyed the existing courthouse twice a day for several days and found an overwhelming number of empty courtrooms.

The 7.6 judges had seven courtrooms to split between them. The odd number of judges represented part-time work. But Circuit Court Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. insisted they needed more space – at least one courtroom per judge.

The Times made the argument through University of Florida Law Professor Jennifer Zedalis that a one-to-one ratio was unnecessary. When the county fired back, the Times emphasized its original argument, citing Zedalis’s extensive experience.

Now the Times is looking to the county to purchase its building for the very same reasons it once critiqued.

Hernando County judges urged county commissioners to provide more space last year, but commissioners pointed to the Times’ 2011 investigation with doubt over whether the space is even necessary.

Now County Administrator Len Sossamon is asking the commission to again consider the matter by entertaining purchasing the 29,000-square-foot, two-story Times’ Hernando Bureau building.

But according to the Times, Sossamon’s reasons for considering purchasing the building, valued at about $4.4 million, extends beyond just providing more courtrooms.

Instead, the county would use the Times’ building for County Commission, county administration, purchasing, budget offices, legal and planning and zoning. Those departments are all currently housed in the same downtown Brooksville location along with the clerk of circuit court, the supervisor of elections, tax collector and property appraiser.

Because courtrooms are housed in the downtown location there is considerable security. Sossamon told the Times a new location for other county operations would be more “visitor friendly” and be more central to county residents.

Hernando County had once set aside $18 million for courtroom space, but ended up spending that money to balance the budget during the economic downturn. It’s unclear where funding would come from now to purchase the Times’ building if the Commission decides to do so.

In the meantime, the Tampa Bay Times, which has been publicly struggling to stay financially afloat after taking out a high-risk loan, seems amenable to the a deal with Hernando County.

“We welcome the county’s interest and believe these appraisals provide a useful basis for discussion,” Times’ chief financial officer Jana Jones told reporter Barbara Behrendt.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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