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Judicial Center has growing pains

WINTON – Before the first shovel of dirt is turned on the new Hertford County Judicial Center (courthouse), plans are in the works to expand the facility.

At their meeting here Monday, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners heard an update on the project from County Manager Loria Williams. That update centered on adding 3,230 square feet to the facility. That, in turn, adds $650,400 to the construction costs, moving that figure in excess of $7 million.

In explaining the need for added space to the Judicial Center, Williams said the county is responsible for providing office space for Child Support Enforcement (CSE).

“We currently lease the space for Child Support at an office in Ahoskie. Moving them in the new Judicial Center will do away with that lease,” Williams said.

To move CSE to the new Center will require 2,860 square feet of additional space, Williams noted. She added that CSE needs 10 offices, not cubicles, in order to provide confidentiality.

“By adding these additional offices, we’ve gone from a two-story facility to a three-story facility, but not three stories all the way across,” Williams said. “The third story will be across the center of the building.”

Additionally, because of a change in the District Court judgeship from the November election, Williams said there now will be a resident judge instead of Judge Kwasakpui whose office was based in Jackson.

“We met with Judge (Tom) Newbern, he is now a resident judge, and that requires some additional space in the Judicial Center for him and his administrative staff,” Williams explained. “That adds another 370 square feet of office space, bringing the total to 3,230 square feet of new space that is needed.”

Those new space requirements adds to the bottom line of what Hertford County will spend on the new facility, which will be constructed in what is now the dirt parking lot across the street from the existing courthouse.

“We adopted a capital project ordinance and had an estimated budget of $6.5 million in construction costs….this new space adds to that cost, bringing it to $7,146,400,” Williams said.

She advised the commissioners that it was their option to leave CSE in the Ahoskie facility and continue to lease that space or build adequate space for them in the new Judicial Center.

“I would highly recommend placing them in the Judicial Center for one reason; to house Child Support we will receive a reimbursement for providing space to a federally funded program…about two-thirds of our annual cost,” Williams stated. “We get reimbursed where they are now, but moving them to the Judicial Center gets rid of a long-term lease. We also provide space for the DA (District Attorney) office (which will move to the new Judicial Center) and will get rid of that office lease as well.”

Williams said those two leases, without having the contract right in front of her at Monday’s meeting, run in the neighborhood of $33,000 on one and close to $30,000 on the other.

“That means we’re paying roughly $65,000 per year on leased space,” Williams stressed.

“I’m in favor of moving Child Support; that $65,000 per year that can go towards paying for a new Judicial Center,” Commission Vice-Chair Curtis Freeman said. “We can lease something forever and never claim ownership.”

“I agree, my only concern is we need to be sure to build a new courthouse that is large enough to start with,” Commission Chairman Johnnie Ray Farmer stated. “It’s a shame to invest in a project of this nature and find out it’s too small the day you move in.”

With the design process pending for the new Judicial Center, Williams said the timetable was tight on deciding whether or not to approve the new square footage.

“I know you’re in a rush to meet schedules, but we need to study this very closely to make sure this is exactly what we need,” said Commissioner Ronald Gatling. “I would like to meet with architect. At some point we need to hear from them. I want him or her standing before me, before us, to let us know what’s going on.”

“We need to consider that if we’re looking at adding a third floor, instead of doing a partial third floor, do an entire third floor to allow for future needs,” Farmer suggested. “If we need to move an office there, all we have to do is close in the space. It would be interesting to know what that will cost.”

“It will be a sizeable cost,” Williams said. “There’s been some jurisdictions in the past that opted to do that, but from speaking with them it didn’t turn out as well as they anticipated. It all depends on how the needs change. We can take a look at that and give you a price of what a whole top floor will cost.”

“What is before you now is the change for the needs assessment; do you want to move forward now with these new projected costs,” Williams continued.

Freeman explained that the project is still in the infant stages, one where changes can be made. He said the architect just recently met with the department heads of the county offices that will be housed in the new facility in an effort to come up with the square footage needed.

“When we get to the meat and potatoes, that’s when we need to meet with the architect,” Freeman said.

“Don’t you think that adding over $600,000 to a project is meat and potatoes,” asked Gatling.

“You’re right, but it has not yet been approved by this board,” Freeman answered. “If we want to move forward on approving this new space, let’s give her (Williams) the go-ahead to let the architect bring plans back to us.”

“Design requires board approval,” Williams noted. “Everything about this project comes through this board.”

The commissioners did not take any action on adding new space to the Judicial Center. The issue may come up again at their next scheduled meeting on Monday, Dec. 20.

In the meantime, the county will provide temporary space for Judge Newbern while the new Judicial Center is being built.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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