The new building is needed to replace the current facility in the Greenbrae shopping center where the court has been “temporarily” housed since 1992.
Judges Susan Deriso and Kevin Higgins talked Tuesday about how close they came to getting the money to build a safer facility that would be large enough to handle the workload that has grown tremendously over the last 18 years.
“We were just so close,” Deriso said in her chambers. “It’s very deflating.”
While the judges expressed disappointment, they also expressed understanding that the local and state governments' economics had changed and the money was simply no longer available.
The main source of revenue to pay the bonds for the project was swept away in February when the state Legislature took the five-cent capital facilities tax from the county. The county decided to pay off the $8.4 million now in order to save $604,000 in interest and avoid a prepayment penalty that would have applied after July 1.
Located in a strip mall that dates back to the 1960s, the Sparks Justice Court came to be housed there when the prior facility on B Street was condemned. The Greenbrae court was thrown together in a couple of months, said court administrator Janine Baker who has worked for the court for more than 20 years. The situation was only supposed to last about three years, Higgins said.
Today, safety and privacy are the primary concerns for the Sparks Justice Court, Higgins said. After the 2006 incident in which Darren Mack stabbed his estranged wife and shot Judge Chuck Weller outside the Reno courthouse after a nasty divorce, the county did a safety audit of all court facilities. The Sparks Justice Court “soundly flunked” the audit, Higgins said.
With such small facilities and so few rooms, victims, inmates and witnesses are often sitting in close quarters to one another while waiting for trials to start. There are also no safety windows protecting front desk staff and the criminals seen at the court have become more dangerous, Deriso said.
“Inmates could easily see a witness or a witness could see them and be scared out of their wits,” Deriso said.
Capacity is also an issue, Deriso said. As the third busiest justice court in the state behind Las Vegas and Reno, the two judges see almost 7,000 cases a year. Higgins and Deriso can each see around 30 cases a day, plus some full-day trials plus small-claims or traffic court days.
The court has been eligible for a third judge since 2001, Higgins said, but each election cycle has waived putting it on the ballot because there is no place to put an extra judge.
A new courtroom was added about a year and a half ago, but it lacks the recording equipment to be used for full trials. Deriso said it has been used as a larger meeting room, for foreclosure mitigation meetings and for hearings that do no need full facilities.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioners Bob Larkin and Bonnie Weber each expressed continued hope that the remaining $7 million or so in the project fund, along with a flexible contractor, would be enough to begin work on a scaled-down version of a new court facility.
The land for a new facility located on Pyramid Way near Disc Drive has essentially been given to the court for free by the Bureau of Land Management, but with no money for construction the judges will continue to work in their cramped quarters.
“We had our hopes up,” Deriso said. “You don’t think you do until something doesn’t happen.”