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Options abound for Northampton Courthouse

JACKSON — Simply put, the Northampton County Courthouse is not sufficient for current and future judicial needs.

Last week, county and judicial officials saw what they already knew about the 151-year-old facility…this time in ink and on paper.

At a special called meeting of the Northampton County Courthouse Facility and Security Committee, representatives with Moseley Architects presented their initial findings after conducting a needs assessment on the courthouse.

The committee was presented with three possible options: to renovate the existing courthouse, build a new courthouse at the existing site or build a new courthouse at an alternate site with future expansion for a new jail and law enforcement center. The options’ current market prices to carry out the work are estimated from $2.5 million to $11.1 million.

“What we’ve got to cover today is to recap what our process is; to share with you our initial findings, to go over those with you,” said Moseley Vice President Dan Mace to the committee. “And to go over those with you to seek some guidance so that we can solidify and finalize our report to the commissioners somewhere around the end of the month.”

Nelda Leon, Moseley’s Director of Criminal Justice Consulting and Project Manager, went over a draft report of the needs assessment with the committee members.

Representatives with Moseley met with the committee last month and received input from the key stakeholders; interviews with individuals were conducted; and tours of the courthouse were conducted for the study. Projected case filings were also taken into account.

Leon said the county’s population was also taken into account. Though the county’s growth is not dramatic in comparison to state trends, Leon suggested an area such as Northampton could become attractive down the road.

“Part of planning is anticipating those scenarios,” she said.

Leon added that while the county’s population is not growing dramatically, court case filings, particularly in the last couple of years, are more significant.

The study listed several issues that needed to be addressed, all of which have been discussed in previous meetings of the Facility and Security Committee. Those issues include security and concerns ranging from the public access to traffic flow of judges/defendants/witnesses/victims, inmates being transported across the street, HAVAC issues, mold and a bat infestation.

Designated meeting spaces and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act were also identified as a need.

“We determined that the square footage of courthouse and the Eley Annex Building is around 29,900 and you really, by these standards with the staffing you have today and the needs you have today and the programs that are in place today. …you almost need double (of what you have),” she said.

The firm projected the total space for the courthouse, including the Tax Department and the Register of Deeds, is 62,116 square feett. In the next 20 years, the projected need is 70,923 square feet.

Mace presented the committee with three options to the committee:

The first option Mace described as a “Band Aid” approach and would require heavy renovations would be done to the courthouse.

The option would also include:

The construction of a secure vehicular sally port connected to a new inmate corridor with new inmate holding areas.

Create secure, separate vertical and horizontal movement paths for inmates, staff, judicial officials and the public. This requires the addition of new secure corridors and addition of at least two elevators to separate and handle vertical movement.

Improve accessibility and ADA compliance.

Renovate the building housing the Tax Assessor to make room for minor expansion to address basic needs. Relocate county functions to include Zoning, Tax and Register of Deeds to other county-owned spaces to provide additional space for current court functions.

Create additional parking in adjacent or alternate locations.

Mitigate mold, mildew, other hazardous materials and bat related issues.

Relocate records storage to other sites to free up space for active files.

Upgrade technology and security systems.

“Option number one will not cure what ails you, it just allows the grandfather building to continue forward in operation,” said Mace.

Mace gave the committee the pros and cons on the first option.

“From a capital outlay point, (option number one) is our lowest recommended cost,” he said.

Another pro, Mace said, was it would allow the current site and historic courthouse to be retained for use.

As for the cons, the option would not address the space needs of the courthouse, even with the additions of the annexed buildings to be used for court operations. At best, Mace said, 10,000 square feet may be gained and doesn’t address 20- and 30-year growth needs.

This option does not address the inmate movement, security and design inefficiencies.

Mace added that with this option not being able to meet all of the courthouse needs, postponing construction during a market 10-year-low that is projected to rise quickly again, means higher costs in the long run.

Even with major interior renovation, demolition of the annex buildings may be required to fit the additional space in a functional layout.

Court proceedings would also be disrupted during construction and would need to be accommodated for in a separate area.

The estimate construction time would be six months.

The second option would be to construct a new courthouse at the existing site, which would encompass the whole block of Courthouse Square.

“Option two was an endeavor to keep the existing court functions here on this site and provide for essential court functions in a new facility that meet 21st century standards,” said Mace.

Option two would:

Demolish the building housing the tax office to make room for the expansion.

Build a new three-story facility to house district courts, superior court, clerk of court, community corrections, the district attorney, juvenile justice and custody mediation with an adequately sized public entrance, security screening and vehicular sally port. The estimated space required for these court related occupants to meet 2030 needs at approximately 56,481 square feet.

Relocate other occupants temporarily and renovate and upgrade vacated areas for used by the county (Administration, Tax, Zoning, Register of Deeds, County Commissioners etc.).

The historic Superior Courtroom would become a new commissioners room.

The pros to this option, Mace said, new court and court support spaces could be laid out from the start in the most efficient way to achieve security and functionality of modern courthouses.

“You would have a court facility that would function as it needs to rather than trying to make the best with what you’ve got,” he said.

The extra courtroom space needed would be provided.

The renovations of the vacated spaces could be done at a reduced cost after the health and code issues are addressed, because what remains is office space as opposed to specialized court requiring additional remedies.

The negatives with the second option include not being able to accommodate a jail connection, expansion of parking space for the already insufficient parking would not be allowed and unforeseen conditions may added to the cost of renovations and upgrades to address environmental hazards.

“I should have mentioned this in option one, the more you try to heavily renovate a historic structure the more is uncovered that you didn’t know existed,” he said about the latter con. “Your unknowns that can result in additional costs are just innate in something like this, it’s something you have to plan for.”

Vehicular transport of inmates would still be required for this option.

The third option would construct a new courthouse facility at a new site and allow future expansion for the addition of a jail and law enforcement center. Meanwhile, the historic courthouse could be renovated for county or civic use.

While court activities would not be disrupted during the construction, parking would be and the relocation of the Tax Office would need to be replaced as that building would be demolished.

Estimated construction time, Mace said, would be 12-14 months.

Option three would:

Build a new 70,923 square foot facility on a remote site of 10 to 20 acres, which would be adequate for all courthouse related functions parking and future expansion.

Non-courthouse functions could remain in the existing courthouse annex and reduce the scale of the new courthouse or be relocated to another county-owned building until such time as renovations are completed to the portions of the historic courtroom and other spaces to be reused.

The positives of the new facility, according to Mace, are that the building could be designed to be functional and cost efficient.

Security for staff would be developed into the design.

Expansion for the jail would be there and if the jail option was constructed it would eliminate the need to transport inmates from the separated jail.

The cost of new construction to address the needs is projected to be less in the long run than other options.

Adequate parking for current and future use would be provided.

The cons include the purchase of land would be an added cost and the relocation of the courthouse from its traditional location can be controversial and indirectly affects other agencies and organizations.

The report notes that though the initial cost of option three may be more than options one and two, it solves courthouse needs while allowing future growth, which is not possible with the other options.

Superior Court Judge Cy Grant asked if the last option would include the Tax Department, Register of Deeds etc.

“Option three, the square footage that is shown there does include completely relocating every function that is here and addressing their spaces,” Mace responded.

Mace then presented the committee with estimated costs for each option. Option one was the least costly at $2,505,628.13; option two was estimated at $9,643,768.75 (with no parking improvements included) and option three at $11,124,990.63 (not including the purchase of land nor including future construction of the jail/law enforcement center).

County Manager Wayne Jenkins questioned Mace about hidden costs that are not identified.

“Did you not say that option one would require the relocation of court activities while construction is ongoing,” he asked.

Mace agreed and added the option would require the permanent relocation of the Tax office and the Register of Deeds, and if the county did not have the square footage for that then it would need to be accounted for.

Mace said if the group saw an option that was not feasible to tell him, as it would allow him to adjust the final report.

The committee went around the table to gauge the opinions of the three options. The main consensus was in favor of option number three and the second option being the least favorable.

Sheriff Wardie Vincent said he saw either option one or two being options at all.

“It addresses some of the security issues, but doesn’t address the problem of handling and moving inmates,” he said. “I thought our idea was to put up a facility that would avoid that and have all us in the same area. Based on what I’m seeing there will be more vehicles, more manpower and still moving the same inmates from point A to point B.”

“Sheriff, I hate to pop your bubble, but option three still requires you to transport inmates,” said Jenkins.

“Option three is (constructing) a new courthouse, but it also shows us that we have land where we can add the facility,” he said. “Hopefully by the time we’re done looking at this facility, we’ll come into fruition with what we’re trying to do.”

Vincent added he was in favor of having the jail/law enforcement center in proximity of the new courthouse and with the projected growth in cases as shown by the study, his office will need more space as well.

“So that will create more of a burden for the Sheriff’s Office, if this (growth) takes place,” he said.

Later on, the estimate of $20-$40 million was mentioned in order to build out the new court facility to include the proposed jail/law enforcement center.

Of the items suggested for inclusion in the firm’s final report to be presented to the commissioners was the estimate of hidden/added costs (i.e. land purchase, relocation factors), as well as examples of what has been done with historic courthouses after they have been vacated (museums, civic centers, county commissioner rooms) and how other communities have funded their new facilities (grants, loans).

A final report will be released to the committee for their consideration on September 29. The commissioners will see the recommendation from the committee in their second meeting of October.