According to local officials, the alleged subpar conditions of the current federal courthouse are the cause of Federal District Court Chief Justice M. Casey Rodgers choosing not to renew the lease on the current building. Now, community leaders have teamed up with legislators to come up with an alternative to keep the courthouse from leaving Panama City. While local officials agree there needs to be a change made on the location of the courthouse, they oppose the idea of removing the courthouse from Bay County all together.
“We cannot lose something so valuable to our community,” said Carol Roberts, President and CEO of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. “Not only would it be a huge inconvenience to individuals involved with federal cases, but it would also cause Panama City to lose an estimated 27 direct and total of over 100 indirect jobs.”
The issue reportedly arose due to the poor quality of facility’s structure, as well as the security concerns for the courthouse. After some research, in the Fall of 2016, the landlord invested nearly $300,000 into the building with a new HVAC system, new roof and parking lot improvements. With the current lease on the building set to end on December of 2018, the Bay County Chamber of Commerce has developed a task force, who has been working tirelessly to find an alternative to the situation, including looking to relocate the courthouse to a different facility or building a new structure. While multiple options have been presented to judicial leaders of Northern Florida District, local officials have not seen a positive response from the Chief Judge.
“We really don’t want to lose our federal courthouse. We have a lot of business that goes on over there, the citizens have come to expect it over here, and we would love to see it stay,” said local attorney Waylon Thompson, Co-Chair, Chamber Federal Court House Task Force.
If a resolution cannot be agreed upon, Panama City’s federal cases, which represent about 20 percent of the caseload in the Northern district, will be moved to Tallahassee or Pensacola. Moving those federal cases could cause agents, attorneys and clients to travel extensively when working on the cases, which could have a huge, negative impact on the economy.
There are two large federal facilities in Bay County, Tyndall Air Force Base and the Naval Support Activity. Anyone who commits a crime on those bases, including something as minor as a speeding ticket, will have to deal with it at a federal courthouse.
With all the services housed in the current facility — which include the U.S. Marshals, the Public Defender’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and federal probation office —the rent is estimated to be between $550,000 and $600,000 a year. With a guarantee to keep that cash flow coming, local attorney Doug Smith, the Chairman of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce task force, says our community could provide the building.
“We are not asking for more federal money to be spent on the Panama City Division,” said Smith. “We are simply asking that the federal government be willing to continue to pay what they currently pay in rent.”
The Bay County Chamber has partnered with the City of Panama City and with Bay County to bring on Capitol Hill Consulting Group to work in Washington, D.C. to work with legislators to keep the judicial officials from terminating the Panama City division.
“This puts ‘boots’ on the ground and helps us in our fight to keep the federal courthouse here in Panama City,” said Roberts. “This is just another example of how our community is working together to fight to keep this valuable resource in Bay County.”
Another issue the task force is facing is the vacant federal judge position in Panama City Division. The Northern district, which covers counties from Pensacola to Gainesville, is supposed to have four judges, but currently only has two seats filled. This is in part because of a logjam in Congress in the final months of President Obama’s term.
“If we could get someone who lives within Panama City appointed, it would give them yet another reason for the division to continue,” Smith said.
Members of the task force are currently searching for candidates to nominate for the position. Members of the task force have said it will be a slow process, but they are optimistic that the courthouse will stay in Bay County. Task force members say they will not be able to achieve their goal, however, unless the citizens of Bay County and the rest of the Panhandle reach out to their representatives for help.
“If the citizens of Bay County are not calling, emailing, doing something to get in contact with their representatives to make it know that the people want the courthouse to stay in Bay County, it is less likely it will stay,” said Thompson. “The public has to voice their desire to keep our federal courthouse to give us a better chance of winning this fight.”