Those who criticize the judicial branch's courthouse building program for being too expensive, too political and too dismissive of historic preservation don't have to look much further than Pike County.
Although the state paid $7.3 million for a new courthouse and jail 18 years ago, $28.4 million has been allocated to build a new one on property owned by a Supreme Court justice — property that includes historic buildings that will be torn down.
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County and judicial officials say the new building is necessary because the old one has inadequate space, heating and cooling.
Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, who owns the property, says there's no conflict of interest because he doesn't want to sell.
The county has offered $300,500 for one building owned by Scott on Second Street and $297,000 for two other properties — a theater and an office building — owned by Scott's relatives.
The Kentucky Code of Judicial Conduct says only that judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety in all activities, and outside activities must minimize the risk of conflict with judicial obligations.
But officials on the project development board, the local group that oversees courthouse construction, say it's just coincidence that the Supreme Court justice happens to own land on the needed site.
The new building will be 94,000 square feet.
The planned site takes up roughly 60,000 square feet of land and includes nine properties. Buildings on the block include the Pinson Hotel, Weddington Theater, Raccoon Auto sales, Pike County Artisan Center, law offices and a dry cleaner. Some of the buildings are considered historic, which has made the project controversial in Pikeville. At least one of them dates from the 1880s.
Former Gov. Paul Patton was the county judge-executive when the first new courthouse was built. He says the real problem is that the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees all judicial centers in the state, provided an insufficient budget the first time around.
"We cut corners every place we could cut corners, but the budget that the AOC allowed us was inadequate to put in even a decent heating system," Patton said.
He thinks the new courthouse is a worthy investment of state money. "I think these new facilities are structurally sound enough to last 100 years," he said. "They're not just the cheapest you can get by with and that's the case of Pike County — it was the cheapest you could get by with."
Patton also dismisses the idea that the new site will destroy part of Pikeville's historic fabric.
"You just can't say we're going to preserve everything that's old," he said.
But another former governor, state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, says the situation in Pike County shows exactly why the court building program needs more oversight.
"I just don't understand why we're spending all this money to build something new so soon," he said.
Richard Beliles of Common Cause Kentucky, a government watchdog group, agrees.
"Even if there's no proof of ethical problems (involving Scott), it seems like it's awfully soon to be building another Taj Mahal," he said. "I think that there should be more legislative oversight of the building program, considering the large amount of state dollars going into this."