May 23, 2018
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Legislative committee nixes bill to require DA’s offices in courthouses

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County prosecutors are the only ones in the state who do not have permanent office space in the building which houses the Superior Court for their county.

District Attorney R. Christopher Almy, who also is the head prosecutor in Piscataquis County, wanted to make sure no other prosecutors have to lug files the four blocks he  and his staff do. Almy lost that fight Thursday when the Judiciary Committee unanimously voted “ought not to pass”  on LD 791 at work session.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, at Almy’s request, would have required any new courthouse to include permanent office space for prosecutors. It also would have forced counties to provide that space rent free.

The judiciary opposed the bill. Mary Ann Lynch, director of court information, testified at the March 17 public hearing on the bill questioned whether the state could afford to transfer the cost of space from the counties to the state. She also said that the tradition of having prosecutors housed in the same building with judges had led to a perception of unfairness.

Until 1976, the Superior Courts were funded by county government when a reorganization of the state court system was implemented. Today, judges, clerks and prosecutors are state employees. Salaries and benefits for support staff in the district attorneys’ offices and office space still are paid for by the counties. However, in every county but Penobscot there is office space for the district attorney and his or her staff in the county courthouse in which the Superior Court is housed.

Almy has been an outspoken critic of the decision made in 2007 that eliminated permanent office space for Penobscot County prosecutors, all of whom are based in Bangor. Before that, he disagreed with the conclusion that an addition could not built onto the old courthouse on Hammond Street because of the erosion along the Kenduskeag Stream that runs behind the Penobscot County Jail, which is adjacent to the old Hammond Street courthouse.

The downtown lot between Exchange Street and the Kenduskeag Stream on which the Penobscot Judicial Center was built is in a 100-year flood plain. Because the stream occasionally overflows its banks, the building could not have a basement. That essentially eliminated one floor and the DA’s offices from the design.

In March 2007, Maine Supreme Court Justice Warren Silver, who oversaw the project, estimated it would cost an additional $7.5 million to make space for prosecutors.

The building does have about 900 square feet of working space for prosecutors to use. Penobscot County pays $10 per square foot per month in rent for that space.

Permanent offices for the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office is located in an annex behind the historic county courthouse and in its basement. Those offices are scheduled to moved to the second floor of the old courthouse once renovations have been completed.

Funding has been approved for renovations in courthouses in Washington and Piscataquis counties. A multi-million-dollar addition to the Kennebec County Courthouse expected to house the district court and clerks’ offices is being planned. All of those plans include space for district attorneys’ offices but in space considered to be under the control of those respective counties, rather than the court system’s.

Almy said Thursday that he was not surprised by Thursday vote to kill the bill and respected the committee’s decision.

“The issued needed to be raised,” he said. “In the future, we really do need to think about the whole [justice] system.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the last name of the bill's sponsor. It is Nichi Farnham, not Farnum.

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