New courthouse approved

Published 9:41 am Tuesday, November 3, 2009

WINTON – Hertford County’s Board of Commissioners stand in unwavering support of building a new courthouse.

In their regularly scheduled meeting here Monday morning, the board voted 5-0 in favor of Commissioner’s Curtis Freeman’s motion to instruct County Manager Loria Williams to launch the process of identifying funding sources that will support the construction of the Hertford County Judicial Center.

Of the three options presented by Pete Cayado of Ware Bonsall Architects to the commissioners at their Oct. 20 meeting, the board chose option 2B. That $7.9 million package is the most expensive of the three options, but it does address all facets of county’s judicial needs, including bringing the District Attorney’s office and all of Hertford County Probation and Parole under one roof.

As they begin their deliberations on the three options, board chairman Howard Hunter III moved quickly to squash option #1 – that of renovating the current courthouse at a cost of $3.37 million.

“I agree with the chairman on this,” offered vice-chairman Johnny Ray Farmer. “We do not need to try and fix something that’s not fixable. I say let’s go with option 2B. I like the way that option looks beyond what we have today.”

“Let’s do this the right way from the start,” Freeman suggested.

“We need to move progressively on this,” Commissioner William “Bill” Mitchell stated. “(Construction) prices will not get any better than they are right now. Option 2B is our best choice.”

Farmer then inquired of Williams as to her ideas of how this can be funded.

Through the use of a color-coded spreadsheet, Williams pointed out Hertford County’s current debt service payments, which total $350,876 this fiscal year. Those payments cover general obligation bonds for improvements at Roanoke-Chowan Community College and installment purchase payments on the renovation of the EMS facility, Sheriff’s Office vehicles and ambulance and various other county vehicles. Those payments consume nearly three cents of the county’s current 91-cent tax rate.

While the vehicle payments end in 2012/13, Williams reminded the board there is always a constant need for new equipment each year.

“Even though some of that debt is retired from year-to-year, we always replace it because there is always a need for vehicles,” Williams noted.

Williams went on to say that even though county’s debt load is not even one percent of its total assessed value, Hertford does have an aging physical plant, including the courthouse.

In regards to the courthouse options, Williams, stating these figures were…“my best assumptions at the current time,” said renovating the facility would add $237,000 to the county’s annual debt service; option 2A will cost $420,945 during the first year of repayment; and option 2B lists a first-year payment of $532,807.

“If we start now, we’re looking at an 18-24 month (construction) project,” she said. “Every year we don’t decide to build will force the construction costs to rise as well as our debt service payments. These numbers I just gave you will not look this good the further out we go.”

Williams also reminded the board about the impact on Hertford County coffers in the wake of the new state budget. Those impacts include Child Support Enforcement ($161,000 annually), diversion of corporate income taxes from the school ADM Fund for two years ($300,000), loss of Beer and Wine Tax ($65,000), loss of $18 per inmate per day housed in the Hertford County Jail, loss of rental income for certain Probation and Parole officers ($12,000), the “hold harmless” clause to cities/towns for the loss of the ½ cent sales tax ($120,000) and a huge hit in interest income earned annually by the county (down to $25,000 from $300,000).

On the plus side, Williams reminded the commissioners of their annual commitment to improve the quality of life for Hertford County citizens. In that regard, the county invests nearly $6 million annually into public education (the second highest amount in the region); $5.15 million for public safety and $6.55 million for human services.

Returning to the issue of funding a new judicial center, Williams stressed that adding a ¼-cent sales tax in the county would basically cover the annual payments on the facility.

“Everybody benefits because everybody pays,” she said referencing the tax that has been twice defeated during previous countywide referendums. “Non-residents pay sales tax too, lessening the burden on property owners and elderly homeowners living on fixed incomes.”

Williams said one penny of property tax generates $120,000 annually. Adding one-quarter of one-cent to the existing sales tax has the potential to add $500,000 annually to the county’s coffers.

When asked about the possibility of grants, Williams said there was “very little brick-and-mortar money” available. She said the USDA has loans for such projects, as do banking institutions.

The board instructed Williams to “shop around” for the best interest rate on a loan and to report those findings at their next scheduled meeting on Nov. 16.

Option 2B calls for the construction of a two-story judicial center located across the street from the current courthouse (in a parking lot owned by the county). It will provide space for the existing offices in the courthouse plus added space for the District Attorney’s Office and for Probation and Parole.