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Hearing Examines Lavish Government Spending on Federal Courthouses

November 8, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government is spending too lavishly on new federal courthouses, building ``palatial accommodations″ for some federal judges, Sen. William Cohen says.

``When new courthouses have rare and exotic wood paneling, ceilings with hand-painted stencils and $5 million worth of interior stonework, I think things have gone too far,″ Cohen, R-Maine, said a day before today’s scheduled hearing on the issue before the Senate Government Affairs government management subcommittee.

An audit by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, has revealed problems with the way the government builds new courthouses, and correcting them could save taxpayers millions of dollars, Cohen said Tuesday.

He said the federal judiciary and the General Services Administration have failed to set priorities and uniform standards for courthouse design and construction. They also have provided inadequate oversight and cost control, he said.

``I have been concerned for some time that the government is spending too much on palatial accommodations for some federal judges,″ he said.

A survey of federal court systems revealed that as of September 1994, two hundred of the 731 court facilities would run out of space within the next 10 years, according to a draft.

Work on 80 of those 200 has been completed or is in various stages of planning or construction. The entire expansion project was estimated to cost $10 billion.

The construction has not been managed as tightly at it could have been, the report said.

``Although this major courthouse construction initiative began in the late 1980s, there has not been and still is not a comprehensive strategic plan to facilitate and guide congressional decision making,″ it said.

The design and construction process can take several years, forcing the GSA to make frequent changes, and in some cases totally rework plans to accommodate changing needs, Joel Gallay, the agency’s deputy inspector general, said in testimony prepared for the hearing.

Delays and midstream changes increase costs substantially, Gallay said.

For example, a 1989 plan to spend $37 million to build a 125,000 square-foot annex to the Portland, Ore., federal courthouse expanded into plans for a new 340,000 square-foot building expected to cost about $133 million, he said.

A 1990 plan to spend $68 million to renovate the Minneapolis courthouse and build an annex transformed into a plan to build a new $103 million courthouse, he said.

``Both the size and cost estimates for the Boston, Massachusetts, courthouse have also grown,″ he said. ``The project has increased by an additional 100,000 square feet and will cost at least $61 million more than its original estimate.″

The part of the federal government most likely to ask for special finishes and furnishings in new buildings was the U.S. courts, Gallay said.

``Their requests have added several millions of dollars to the costs of delivering individual projects,″ he said. ``No one disputes that courthouse design and appointments should reflect and reinforce the dignity and importance of this institution.

``The question is, however, where does one cross the line between creating the appropriate environment and using public funds to underwrite personal preferences and excesses?″

In its own audit last month, the GSA found the added cost of upgrading the interior of New York City’s new Foley Square courthouse and office complex was more than some recently completed courthouses.

It singled out the building’s 5,300 square-foot ceremonial courtroom as ``one of the more significant examples of embellishment.″ Cost overruns for design changes in the $1 billion project added more than $120 million to the final price tag.

The GSA audit found no wrongdoing, but it did find examples of extravagance at government projects nationwide.

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