A member of a Tennessee taxpayer group questions whether $1.1 million for 54 parking spaces and a security fence behind Chattanooga’s federal courthouse is a wise expenditure, especially with the courthouse slated for replacement by 2010.
"It seems like a temporary fix to a problem that doesn’t really exist," said Joe Dumas, a Chattanooga member of Tennessee Tax Revolt Inc., a nonprofit, nonpartisan taxpayer advocacy group. "Why do this at all if you’re planning to move out of the courthouse as soon as you can get an appropriation?"
The $148,000 fence, along with a narrow parking area the government purchased from former Mayor Jon Kinsey for $859,000, provides a 50-foot security setback, according to Gary M. Mote, chief information and public affairs officer for the southeast region of the U.S. General Services Administration.
The setback requirement was prompted by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But the ornate security fence installed this summer behind the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building stands open.
Court officials say the addition of the parking lot and security fence was money well spent, even if the new courthouse is built.
"Our people will be able to park there even if we’re in the new courthouse," said U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar. "The first day I walked in here 20 years ago, I told GSA we ought to buy that parking lot."
Mr. Mote said $1.3 million was allocated in the transportation spending bill of 2003 to purchase enough property to ensure the building met the 50-foot setback security requirement. Some $293,000 of the allocation is unspent and will be returned, he said.
The parking spaces in the lot purchased from Mr. Kinsey will be assigned for law enforcement vehicles and the personal cars of workers in the Solomon Building, according to Gary Mullins, head of the local U.S. Marshal’s Office.
The workers’ spaces will be leased for parking at a rate of $42.25 a month. At that rate, the parking lot will generate about $30,000 a year, he said.
In 2002, federal officials had placed the 72-year-old Joel W. Solomon Building on a short list for new construction.
Work on a proposed $50 million, 250,000-square-foot federal building on the former site of Chattanooga’s Civic Forum was to begin in 2007, but the plan was put on hold last fall with a two-year courthouse construction moratorium.
Officials said the delay means continuing stop-gap security remodeling, as well as the ongoing expenditure of $2.2 million a year in leases for federal offices that won’t fit in the 1933 Joel W. Solomon Building. The nearly 130,000-square-foot building houses the offices of U.S. District Court judges and clerks; U.S. Marshals; federal probation officers; U.S. Secret Service agents; U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn.; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. It also serves as the downtown post office.
Government records show leased commercial spaces house the offices of U.S. attorneys; the IRS; the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; U.S. Bankruptcy Court; and local Social Security offices. Those leased spaces total 162,789 square feet, government records show.
If and when a new federal courthouse is built, the U.S. attorneys’ offices, the DEA, FBI, ATF and other federal offices could be located more centrally near the U.S. District courtrooms, said U.S. Marshal Mullins. The office oversees federal courthouse security and handles the transport of federal prisoners here.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court would be moved into the Joel W. Solomon building. The space housing the U.S. Bankruptcy Court was sold in 2003 by TVA for $2.1 million. TVA spent $2.8 million in 1988 to renovate the building, officials said. The 1893 four-story, 36,997-square-foot historic Post Office and Customs House Building is across Lindsay Street from Chattanooga’s City Hall.
The owner is Custom House Realty, a limited partnership assembled by Independent Healthcare Properties President Greg Vital. Mr. Vital and the GSA extended the Bankruptcy Court’s annual $463,137 lease until June 2008, according to government records.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...