NEW PORT RICHEY — As they sat around an enormous conference table, officials from Pasco County courts, law enforcement and government grappled with a fundamental question that has divided county residents for decades: east, west or somewhere in between?
The county is developing a facilities master plan to take Pasco forward 25 years, but officials have to decide whether to keep offices and courts on both ends of the county or centralize government and court functions at one location. Assistant County Administrator Heather Grimes pointed out that with new communities being developed along the State Road 54 corridor, the population along the county’s southern boundary will eventually eclipse east and west Pasco.
“We have Dade City, we have New Port Richey, but all the population shows this,” Grimes said, gesturing to the map. “So what do we do? In my head, we need to make a decision at this big table and have an honest dialogue about is it realistic to centralize county government.”
The county owns a huge swath of land on U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes, where the jail is located. County Administrator Michele Baker said the site is the geographical center of the county, but it really isn’t convenient to most residents. “Pasco County is 750,000 square miles,” she said. “Central is most efficient, but it would be really hard for our customers to get to us.”
Consultant Chloe Jaco, who will present a recommended master plan later this year, said the county needs to start planning and land banking for future offices, libraries and fire stations that will be needed to accommodate future growth.
“You need to ask yourselves where you want to be in 20 years,” she said. “I do think there is a trend toward centralization. Are we afraid to say yes, we’re moving in that direction? Is the West Pasco Government Center the center of the county, or where the people are going to be in 20 years? And what kind of presence do you need to keep in Dade City? What happens over time if the county’s presence there is smaller and smaller?”
Baker noted that the county government building in Dade City already has excess space. “We have to decide if we want to have services closer to our citizens, or do they want more virtual services,” she said.
County commissioners were slated to pick an architect this year for a third courthouse — something the judges, state attorney and public defender all want. But the sheriff’s office and court clerk have opposed the plan, either because of the placement of the building, the lack of public transportation or the added expense of staffing three courthouses.
The preliminary design calls for eight courtrooms and enough office space to accommodate all of the county’s criminal court judges, prosecutors and the public defender’s office.
Public Defender Bob Dillinger said the criminal courthouse should be in the center of the county, connected to the jail. “The civil courthouses need to be where the people are. The traffic court needs to be where the people are,” he said.
Sheriff’s Maj. Ed Beckman said it might be more cost effective to shift all criminal functions to one of the existing courthouses. But Judge Shawn Crane said it would be unreasonable to ask criminal defendants and witnesses to drive all the way across the county to address their cases, and the same for civil litigants.
“If you look at Hillsborough County, the courthouse is downtown (Tampa) and those people who get arrested from Citrus Park, they have to drive an hour to get downtown for court,” Beckman said.
But Dillinger countered that Hillsborough County is moving all its criminal operations to a new courthouse — next to its jail. He said Pasco needs a centralized criminal courthouse, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in Land O’ Lakes.
“We should probably look at adding a third courthouse, or closing either Dade City or New Port Richey and building a new courthouse in Wesley Chapel,” he said.
Jaco said Pasco County’s issues aren’t unique. “So many counties wrestle with this — there’s not one right answer.”