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Broward County Tax: Broward commissioners commit 1/2 cent existing sales tax to new courthouse

Voters rejected a tax for a new Broward County courthouse just four years ago, but Tuesday, county commissioners approved the project anyway.

For 30 years, when someone pays sales tax in Broward County, that customer will be helping build a new courthouse.

County commissioners voted 6-3 on Tuesday to commit a half-cent of the existing 6 percent sales tax toward a new courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, on the south side of the New River. That's not a new tax; it's already being charged. But by their vote, commissioners divert the tax from its use for general services and projects, and commit it to the courthouse construction.

Opponents said it could lead commissioners to raise property taxes to make up for the lost $230 million income. Voters in 2006 rejected a property tax for a courthouse, but commissioners are using an existing tax and don't have to put it on the ballot this time.

All nine commissioners agree a new courthouse is needed. They disagree about how it should be paid for, and when.

The sales tax millions previously flowed into general county coffers for use on practically anything. Now, $230 million of it will be assigned to pay for the Broward County courthouse, parking garage and retail complex that is expected to break ground next year and could be open in 2014. The courthouse is expected to cost $328 million, but the county already has the remainder of the money set aside, including $65 million from a proposed but never-built new jail.

Commissioner Al Jones said people who do business there -- the judge, the jury, the accused, the accusers, and of course the lawyers -- all need a building that's not falling apart.

"The building is disgusting,'' said Commissioner Stacy Ritter, who voted for it. "The building is an embarrassment.''

The cost to Broward residents individually is hard to calculate, because it's a sales tax, not a property tax. But in general it was estimated at about $8 a year for the typical resident. Other county debt will soon be paid off, but this partly takes its place.

Commissioner Ilene Lieberman said there's been an outcry - and a lawsuit - for a new courthouse. Employees who work there are suing, saying it's a "sick buiding.'' Flooding, elevator and escalator troubles, and mold are among the troubles.

"Have you been to the courthouse lately?'' she asked.

County leaders have found that selling a courthouse tax to the public was not as easy as selling parks, or libraries. But Lieberman, an attorney with an office near the Southeast 6th Street court complex, argued that it's every bit as important.

"Nobody talks about the courthouse but it's the place where your legal rights are preserved in this country,'' she said.

Commissioner Lois Wexler, one of the "no'' votes, said the need for a new building is not under debate. But she worried about the financial impact of Tuesday's sales tax proposal. Commissioner Sue Gunzburger equated it to "another big reduction in services'' and also voted against it.

"I don't think we can afford it now,'' Gunzburger said.

Likewise, Commissioner John Rodstrom said now isn't the time to pledge the millions, as commissioners slash the budget at the same time.

The courthouse plan calls for demolition of the parking garage that's adjacent to its west side. The new courts will be built there. Where the existing courtshouse is, a new parking garage with ground-floor retail will be built.

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