In Wolfe County, one in three residents and half of all children live in poverty. But over the next few years, the county will borrow $11.4 million — $1,629 for every man, woman and child who live there — to build a new courthouse.
The 33,500-square-foot courthouse will be the same size as the 4-year-old justice center in Perry County, which serves a population four times as large.
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State taxpayers will foot a bill of $1 million a year until the debt is repaid, in a county where the entire annual budget is $2 million.
Wolfe County is just one piece of a courthouse juggernaut. In a program started in 1998 by Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph E. Lambert, who retired in June, more than $880 million has been allocated to build 65 justice centers around the state. Thirty-seven of the projects are under construction or in the design phase, according to information provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Lambert has called the creation of judicial centers throughout the state his "greatest legacy." In 1998, he handpicked Garlan VanHook, a Rockcastle County architect who designed Lambert's home, to run the program.
Lambert and VanHook decided that the endgame was a new or renovated justice center in every county in the state that needed one: "That became the policy, that we were going to seek 100 percent new justice centers," said VanHook.
Advocates say the initiative has brought desperately needed upgrades to Kentucky's courthouses, providing space and technology to better serve justice. But the program has also raised questions, including:
■ In one of America's poorest states, should nearly $900 million in taxpayer money be spent on large and elaborate justice centers while other needs go unmet?
■ Should major contracts involving millions of dollars be put out for competitive bids? Currently, they are not, and two politically connected firms receive most of the contracts to finance and build the new justice centers.
■ Is there enough oversight of how that money is spent? There has never been a full-scale outside audit of the building program.
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, says the people of Kentucky "should be outraged."
"To put these multimillion-dollar projects in small counties is absolutely the wrong thing to do," he said. "It's a shameful way of being a steward of the people's money."
Kentucky stands out in its effort to replace its courthouses. No other state has such an ambitious plan, said Chang Ming Yeh, principal court facility planner with the National Center for State Courts. Most other states build new courthouses in a much more piecemeal way, rather than authorizing so many every year.
Still, many state, local and judicial officials think that projects such as the Wolfe County judicial center are worth their price tags. Lambert says the scope and costs of the courthouse program are appropriate and the buildings fill a great need.
"You have to have a good building to have court in," said Wolfe County Judge-Executive Raymond Hurst. "The poverty, we'll have to take care of that from another angle, but I think courthouses should be a priority."
AOC officials say the judicial center building program is all part of a clear and organized process that has evolved since 1998, when Lambert became chief justice.
Before then, the AOC focused more on renovations and expansions than on building new justice centers. But, under Lambert, the AOC did a statewide appraisal of court facilities that rated the condition, space and security of each county's courthouse.
Lambert said it was clear a new process was needed after large new courthouses were approved in Lexington, Bowling Green and Louisville.
"There was a perception that the prominence of particular legislators might have influenced that," Lambert said in a recent interview. So at the same time that Lambert undertook the creation of family and drug courts, he also decided to change the way the AOC builds courthouses.
The process for choosing and funding projects was codified in 2000 in a bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, who serves on the Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee and works for Ross Sinclaire & Associates, the financial adviser for the vast majority of justice centers. He recuses himself from committee votes on justice-center projects.
Under the system, the AOC sets the price and size for each new project, the legislature approves the price and the county floats a bond issue for that amount. The AOC pays the annual debt service on the bonds.
Construction is handled through a local project development board, made up of county and judicial officials. But the AOC has veto power over most major decisions.
In fact, at least one former member of a local board thinks the board has little real authority. Bruce Ramsey, a former Wayne County judge-executive, quit his county's committee for a new justice center in Monticello because he felt it had no real say.
"The local board would pass resolutions for something to be done, and the AOC would just overrule it," he said. "It's one of the most corrupt political systems I know of. I have nothing but bad feelings toward the Administrative Office of the Courts."
There's little discussion in Frankfort about the merits of each new proposal. Elected officials welcome new courthouses, which bring construction jobs, a new downtown centerpiece, and technologically updated, secure and spacious quarters for judicial officials.
But, if something jeopardized state funding, the counties would ultimately be on the hook for something many of them could not afford. In Wolfe County, for example, loss of the $1 million paid annually by the state for use of the justice center would wipe out half of the county's annual budget.
Wayne also said he thinks the funding structure is flawed because county and judicial officials are spending what is, in fact, state taxpayer money, while no state authority is taking a critical look at it.
The AOC is audited by its own Division of Auditing and makes an annual financial report to the Secretary of State's office. State Auditor Crit Luallen's office does a limited review of justice center financing and contracts when she investigates a county's finances, according to her office. But there has never been a specific full-scale audit of the current building program.
In addition, most of the major contracts on justice center construction go to companies chosen without any bidding process. The AOC simply sets prices for all major services, which is allowed under state procurement codes. So there is no competitive system to give contracts for construction management, architects and financial services to the lowest bidder. The AOC is not subject to Kentucky's Open Records Law, so it releases information as it chooses.
"There's not sufficient accountability," said Jim Waters of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Bowling Green. "The judicial bureaucracy ought to be accountable to the representatives of the people .... and anyone should be able to bid on the projects."
Lambert, whose name appears on brass plaques in the new buildings, said he's proudest of his legacy of family courts because they have helped so many children and families. Still, he said, "courthouses are very noticeable, and some will remember me for that."