A U.S. Senate appropriations committee last week OK'd funding for a new federal courthouse in Nashville, and that means Chattanooga is one step closer to replacing its own 82-year-old downtown federal building.
A U.S. General Services Administration five-year plan shows Chattanooga is due to get a new, $15 million courthouse downtown in federal fiscal year 2018. We're in fiscal 2016 now.
But officials say they don't put too much stock in the federal report. GSA proposals for courthouses still have to find a spot in the federal budget, and the last time that happened before this year was 2010. The Nashville courthouse, for example, had been on the five-year plan for almost two decades.
Local U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. said he's cautiously optimistic. He's been fighting for a new courthouse for years.
"My fondest hope is that we will get a new courthouse in 2018, but I'll not hold my breath," he said. "I like to be an optimist, but I like also not to be a fool."
The courthouse, formally called the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building, was first added to the GSA's list in 1999. Aside from security and space concerns, the building floods and has occasional rodent infestations in the lower floors.
"We love this old building, but it's an old building. It's a 1933-era building, and it's not suited for the electrical equipment that we need to use every day," Mattice said.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who announced the Nashville courthouse committee decision last week, had a more hopeful tone.
"The good news is that a new federal courthouse in Chattanooga is a priority for the Judicial Conference. Tight budget times have slowed down construction for all courthouses, but I hope Congress can fund Nashville's courthouse this year and set a trend that leads to the construction of a new courthouse in Chattanooga in the future," Alexander said in an email Friday.
Micah Johnson, a spokeswoman for former Chattanooga mayor and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, said Corker is also keeping an eye on the situation.
"As a Chattanoogan, Sen. Corker understands the need for a new federal courthouse. Our office has reviewed the plan and will continue to monitor developments," Johnson said.
A LONG TIME COMING
Building new courthouses is a slow business, partly because Congress stopped the practice of legislative earmarks — inserting special riders with legislation to get certain projects funded.
Before 2011, when the Republican-lead Congress banned earmarks, the priority list was mainly political. Influential politicians could get their courthouses funded through legislative provisions.
But starting in 2006, GSA initiated a new, more objective process to determine what courthouses need replacing. The Asset Management Planning process assigns a number to courthouses based on their size, age, use, security and other factors. The higher the number, the higher the need for replacement.
Chattanooga, along with the courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa, were among the first courthouses to go through the process, according to a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. But the new rating system has complicated the priority list by revealing issues in previously overlooked areas.
"Specifically, judiciary documents show that more than a dozen other projects not included on the current five-year plan now rank above the Chattanooga and Des Moines projects, six of which recommend new construction," according to the GAO report.
Regardless, as of September 2014, Chattanooga has retained its No. 10 spot. It's slated for site selection, design and construction in fiscal 2018.
But the five-year plan seems to be a moving target. The same report from 2012 had Chattanooga at No. 12, to be built in fiscal year 2017. That report only included site selection and design for a $21.5 million price tag.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrog email@example.com or 423-757-6481.