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With all federal courthouse projects on hold, talks urged to set priorities

Federal courthouse projects in Buffalo and elsewhere are on hold as the government landlord that builds such buildings contends with a tenant that's pleading poverty: the U.S. judiciary.

"This is what I would call a temporary funding hiatus for courthouse construction," said Debi Schilling, director of budget for the General Services Administration, which builds and maintains federal buildings.

"We need to sit down with the judiciary in light of their budget difficulties," Schilling said Tuesday. "We need to work with them and determine specifically, of the projects that have been on the courts' list, which ones we need to proceed with."

The agency's decision to postpone new courthouse construction was included in President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2007. The decision comes in the wake of the federal court system's demand that the GSA cut its rent in half for courtroom space all around the country.

Facing a shortfall of funding set aside by Congress, the court system made that demand in late 2004, a few months after announcing a series of cost-cutting moves including its own two-year moratorium on new courthouse construction.

That moratorium was set to expire this fall, just as the 2007 budget takes effect. But given that the courts had delayed construction for two years, its landlord decided that it, too, could postpone the projects. "Certainly the moratorium influenced the budget decision," Schilling said.

But Richard Carelli, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said the judiciary had been expecting its top-priority courthouses to be funded in 2007. And the new Buffalo courthouse, to be built on Niagara Square, is at the top of the judiciary's priority list.

Carelli said the courts will ask Congress for a rent break. And that's just what Chief Judge Richard J. Arcara and Judge William M. Skretny, who have been overseeing the Buffalo courthouse project, plan to do to try to win funding for it, Skretny said.

The judges have strong support in the Buffalo-area congressional delegation.

"This courthouse is vital to Buffalo, and we are going to continue to fight for the funding promised," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

But congressional sources also have acknowledged that it will be difficult to win funding for the courthouse without backing from the Bush administration.

Schilling, of the GSA, stressed that the delay in the courthouse projects is only temporary. "I think we'll see them in the near future," she said. "I can't make a prediction as to which year or how much."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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