2012 Top Stories: #3: HC invests millions in new facilitiesPublished 10:31am Thursday, January 3, 2013
WINTON – From Winton, to Murfreesboro, and back to Winton….the new Hertford County Judicial Center kept changing zip codes before the first shovel of dirt was turned to build this multi-million-dollar facility.
The R-C News-Herald documented this ongoing story throughout 2012, a series of events that finally had the new courthouse being built, along with a new county administrative office, on land donated to the county just west of Winton.
But the year began with the Hertford County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreeing to enter an option agreement that may lead to the purchase of the Percy Bunch property near Murfreesboro for the purpose of building the new courthouse. That decision, as reported in the News-Herald’s Jan. 19 edition, was not a contract to purchase the land, but rather one that, “binds the seller, not the buyer; as it states in the option agreement, the buyer may elect to purchase or not purchase the property for cause or no cause,” said Charles “Chuck” Revelle who serves as legal counsel to the county.
The county paid Bunch $100, money that prevents the landowner from renegotiating the previous terms agreed to (the purchase of approximately 25 acres for $7,500 per acre) or offering the same property to another prospective buyer. If the county decides to proceed with purchasing the property, the $100 will be applied to the purchase price. If there is a decision not to proceed with the purchase, Bunch keeps the $100.
Revelle said the option agreement gives the county 120 days in which to perform their “due diligence.” That includes title examination, utilities (to include mechanical and engineering studies) and environmental issues, to include soil testing. Following that period of time, the county may choose to exercise its option to purchase, after which county officials have a 60-day window to legally close the deal.
At this particular stage of the courthouse project, the other tract under review by the commissioners to possibly build the facility was the Pierce site (located at Frazier’s Crossroads west of Ahoskie).
The decision to move the courthouse from Winton to Murfreesboro sparked a lot of chatter around the county, as reported in the Jan. 24 edition. Some local citizens have voiced their concerns over what they see as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Signs bearing the words “No New Courthouse” sprung up in Winton.
At the Jan. 17 meeting of the commissioners, Hertford County Manager Loria Williams said the structural deficiencies and potential liabilities of the current courthouse led the governing body to its decision to move forward with constructing a new facility. While Hertford County does not have a lot of existing general fund debt on the books (a shade over $3 million through 2032), there is the presence of aging infrastructure and a physical plant that has lacked renovation and upgrades over the years.
The current courthouse is showing signs of age with major cracking of interior and exterior walls, indicating foundation problems, as well as leaks and termite damage, according to January, 2007 assessment of the facility performed by an architect. There were noted deficiencies of handicap accessibility, including several in non-compliance with ADA standards.
She said the project is financially feasible based on three important intangibles – the monies approved by the one-fourth cent local sales tax (generating an estimated $460,000 annually and set aside for capital improvement projects), the retirement of $176,265 in current debt service payments by the time the first payment is due on the new courthouse (in FY 2014-15) and the fact that the new facility will also house the District Attorney’s Office and Child Support Office (space the county currently leases for a combined $63,465 per year).
County officials initially began discussing a new courthouse in early 2007. The commissioners authorized a Needs Assessment Study, which was performed in October of 2008. One month prior, the county established a Courthouse Stakeholders Committee to develop a scope of study and needs assessment. That committee, which met seven times over the span of one year, also finalized the space components needed at the new courthouse.
At one point of the ongoing discussions, a plan was presented on Oct. 19, 2009 to renovate the existing courthouse. The price tag was placed at $3.37 million plus an added $1 million to cover the cost of providing temporary space while those renovations were being performed. Two other options were presented at that same time – new construction with the existing courthouse occupants ($6.31 million) and new construction with existing occupants plus adding office space for the District Attorney and Probation and Parole ($7.99 million).
County officials eventually chose the latter, to include adding the Child Enforcement Office.
The public outcry spilled over into February. There, the News-Herald received a press release from a group calling themselves The Concerned Citizens of Hertford County. A spokesperson said the group, comprised of individuals from different communities in the county, wished to remain anonymous at this point in time.
They have retained legal counsel, not to bring a lawsuit against the county, but rather to “evaluate how this project has been handled to date” as stated in the press release.
According to additional information provided, the attorney representing the group will make a formal request to the county commissioners, county manager and county attorney for information to include minutes of meetings and any other correspondence which is or should be a matter of public record.
The group, according to the release, was “united to impede the process by the Hertford County Commissioners to purchase land in the Murfreesboro area to locate the proposed Hertford County Courthouse.”
“Our group does not advocate any specific site or location for the courthouse,” the release said. “We advocate that the Hertford County Commissioners reconsider all options for the proposed Hertford County Courthouse project.
The request made by the citizens group to put everything back on the table regarding the courthouse construction project is the latest in a series of recent maneuvers on this issue.
Before the first week of February drew to a close, the county manager was the recipient of a hand delivered letter from the controlling partners representing ASP Riversedge LLC. Those property owners offered 25 acres of free land so that the county could locate its new complex, including the courthouse, on the corner of US 158 and Parker’s Fishery Road.
The Riversedge development, located just west of Winton, is controlled by Ahoskie businessman Preston Wood, legendary Ahoskie High School football coach Al Vaughan and Scott Camp, representing the heirs of the S.V. Camp family of Franklin, Va.
That property was among the three finalists for the courthouse construction. It was originally offered for $20,000 per acre, with the owners paying for $500,000 worth of infrastructure improvements. That offer was eventually lowered to $7,000 per acre, with the county covering the cost of the infrastructure.
A spokesperson for the Riversedge partners later clarified the infrastructure improvements, saying the lone stipulation to the free land was for the county, upon connecting to the Town of Winton sewer line, to install a pipe large enough and provide a manhole access to that pipe for the Riversedge commercial property to connect. He added that Riversedge will construct its own wastewater lift/pump stations on the property.
The free land offer caused the commissioners to conduct a workshop in early February to explore four possible sites to construct the new courthouse – the Bunch and Pierce property, Riversedge, and a parcel of county-owned land within Winton.
As reported in our Feb. 11 edition, despite an 11th hour plea from Winton citizens, it appears the new Hertford County Courthouse will not be built within this historic town.
However, all is not lost for Winton.
In a 5-0 vote, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, meeting Thursday in a workshop to discuss the courthouse construction site, opted to accept an offer of 25 acres of free land from Riversedge LLP. They seemed to favor the Riversedge property from the standpoint that it is only one mile from Winton’s town limits, meaning the county seat will not have to change locations.
“We’d much rather have the courthouse in town after it’s been here for 250 years,” said Winton native and current Town Commissioner Emily Winstead. “We’re losing our history and it breaks our heart. If Riversedge is the best we can do, then that’s better than moving the courthouse and county seat to Murfreesboro or Ahoskie.
County Manager Loria Williams noted that the Riversedge property gives the county the room to not only build the new courthouse, but the proposed 9-1-1 Center as well. There is also room there if the board decided to move all county government offices now in the main administrative building – tax office, land records, tax assessor, county manager, finance office and economic development – to outparcels adjacent to the new courthouse at Riversedge. That move will allow Hertford County DSS to use all the space in the administrative building, to include moving the Ahoskie DSS office staff back to Winton.
By June, the addition of a county administrative building became a reality when the commissioners approved the construction of the new Judicial Center and County Government Center (administrative office) for a combined $11.71 million.
The Judicial Center (courthouse) is a three story facility encompassing 45,456 gross square feet. Construction cost is estimated at $7.72 million plus $720,000 worth of site development.
The single story Government Center (10,385 gross square feet) will be built adjacent, but not connected, to the courthouse. Construction costs for that facility are projected at $1.45 million.
Combining the construction and site development costs along with additional monies for other architectural design and old and new project costs brings the bottom line total to $11,716,583.
The board, also in mid-June, approved the purchase of 10 additional acres of land (at $7,000 per acre) located directly behind the 25 acres gifted to the county by the Riversedge development partners. That property will be used for future expansion of county offices.
As reported in the Nov. 6 edition, the combined costs to construct the two new facilities had increased to a combined $12.225 million. County officials are required to reveal what public funds will be used to repay the debt (annual payments of $954,104 beginning in 2015) on the projects. Topping that list was the quarter-cent sales tax the county implemented, by a majority decision of the voters, several years ago. That fund, which was earmarked for capital improvement projects, will cover approximately 50 percent of the annual debt service payments. The remaining funds will annually come from ad valorem taxes ($135,000 beginning in 2015), $100,000 set aside yearly in tax revenues, and $254,104 in capital reserve funds.
At their first meeting in December, the county commissioners awarded the construction contracts of the new facilities to A.R. Chesson Company of Williamston. Those costs included construction ($9,983,476), furnishings and equipment ($666,738), design fees and expenses ($850,306), land and right-of-way ($70,000), materials/testing/special inspections ($155,744) and contingency ($499,174).
The Judicial Center (courthouse) will be a three story facility encompassing 45,456 gross square feet. The Center will house all departments in the existing courthouse plus the District Attorney’s Office and Child Enforcement Office, both currently in Ahoskie.
Additionally, the project includes a single story Government Center (10,385 gross square feet) that will be built adjacent, but not connected, to the courthouse. That facility will house the county manager’s office, tax collection office, tax assessment office, land records, finance office and economic development (planning and zoning) office. In turn, that space in the current administration building in Winton will be used by Hertford County DSS.
Just before Christmas, the county commissioners approved a series of measures that will tap into the public bond market as a means to bankroll the two projects.
Ted Cole of Davenport & Company, who is serving as the county’s financial advisor on this project, unveiled the plan to the commissioners, saying that the county did not receive any proposals from the banks it solicited to provide financing.
Payments on that debt service begin in 2014. For the first six years (through 2019), those payments are estimated at between $963,431 and $1,105,036 due to the fact that the debt service on the new construction projects is combined with existing General Obligation Bonds (roughly $140,000 annually) that are still being made on a loan used to make upgrades to Roanoke-Chowan Community College. Repayment on those G.O. Bonds ends in 2019, thus dropping the total debt service payments only to the new Judicial/Government Centers (payments beginning at $941,831 in 2020 and ending in 2033 at $620,250).
County Manager Loria Williams previously developed a plan of how to generate the necessary revenue to match those debt service payments, no matter which funding source the county pursued in financing the two new projects.
Cole pointed out those revenue streams during his presentation…..noting the $490,000 annually that county officials promised to use annually for capital improvement projects when local citizens voted to approve a local quarter-cent sales tax; an additional $100,000 in sales tax that the commissioners earlier approved to be set aside to make these debt service payments; $100,000 that the county will save in leases they currently pay to house offices that will be moved into the new Judicial Center; the $140,000 currently used annually to pay back the RCCC bonds (by keeping that amount in their annual budget); and a yearly incentive payment reduction of $205,000 beginning in 2018.
The next steps in the process have been scheduled, to include the commissioners next meeting (9 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 7) where the board can hold a public hearing and choose to adopt a “findings resolution.” One day later (Jan. 8), the county hopes to submit a final application for this plan to the Local Government Commission for their approval when they meet on Feb. 5. By Feb. 6, the county hopes to have bond pricing and will lock in an interest rate, leading up to the closing of the financing package on Feb. 14.