HC Courthouse: the need is now

Published 9:38 am Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WINTON – On the heels of the site selection of a new courthouse, the chatter heard now around Hertford County deals with the need for such a facility.

Since the Jan. 3 meeting of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners, where the board chose the Percy Bunch property near Murfreesboro to locate the highly debated construction project, some local citizens have voiced their concerns over what they see as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Signs bearing the words “No New Courthouse” have sprung up recently in Winton.

At the Jan. 17 meeting of the commissioners, Hertford County Manager Loria Williams distributed material that answered several questions about the need for a new courthouse as well as provided a projected debt service payment plan. Her fact sheet included the added costs the county will bear to transport inmates to court.

In answering why build a courthouse in the current economic environment, Williams said the structural deficiencies and potential liabilities of the current courthouse led the governing body to its decision to move forward with construction. While Hertford County’s debt per capita is extremely low ($66 – compared to $433 in Northampton, $499 in Bertie and $595 in Gates) and that the 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, 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.

The architect also noted evidence of roof leaks, water damage from a heating system, termite damage in the Superior Courtroom, inadequate lighting, possible asbestos floor tiling, poor ventilation and worn seating in the Superior Courtroom.

Security concerns were noted at the main entrance, the cashier station in the Clerk of Courts office and prisoner transport.

Additionally there was a noted lack of attorney-client meeting rooms and victim/witness waiting rooms as well as extremely small rooms for jury deliberation and judges chambers.

Williams said she had also fielded questions on how the county can afford to build a new courthouse. She estimated the annual debt service payment at $635,070 (based on an $8.6 million facility and a 3.91 percent interest rate over a 20-year period).

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).

There is also the contention that the estimated cost for the new courthouse has risen to over $10 million.

Williams said taking into consideration the short and long term space needs, namely for DSS, the county asked the courthouse architects to provide a cost estimate to either fill out the entire top floor of the three-floor facility or create adjacent buildings to move those provisions in the county’s Administrative Office Building that interact closely with those housed in the courthouse. If that becomes a reality, the newly created free space in the Administrative Building will house the DSS offices now located in Ahoskie. Adding offices for the County Manager/Finance Dept., GIS Mapping, Tax Assessor, Tax Collector and Planning/Economic Development to the new courthouse would add an estimated $2 million to the construction costs.

“Please note that this information has been presented and reviewed and has not been acted on,” Williams stressed.

The fact sheet also included anticipated costs for transporting inmates from the county jail in Winton to wherever the new courthouse is built. That annual cost – to include the price of a 15-passenger van, fuel, vehicle maintenance and repair and transport personnel salaries – was estimated at $76,322 annually. However, $36,000 of that money was for a van with a five-to-seven year life cycle. The transportation costs included three trips per day for three court days per week.

Another concern was that the pre-construction process will have to be restarted from scratch due to the selection of a new location.

Williams said the design phase of the project was nearing 100 percent completion prior to the commissioners moving the courthouse from Winton to Murfreesboro. She said the design will not change, but certain portions of the geo-technical surveying will need to be performed on the new site. That part of the project is estimated at $15,000.

Williams also stressed that this project is not new. 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.

Since Aug. 1 of last year, the commissioners have dealt with the courthouse construction issue at 11 meetings. Several board members, along with Williams and County Attorney Chuck Revelle, also attended a Sept. 12, 2011 meeting of the Winton Town Commissioners at which time the town denied the county’s parking variance request (during construction of the new courthouse, originally planned to be built across the street from the current facility).

It was after the Sept. 12 meeting with Winton officials that the county commissioners began formally searching for a site to construct the courthouse, saying they were forced to look elsewhere due to the lack of having an approved parking variance.

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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