Courthouse

 

picture-of-rennovated-courthouse-with-handicaped-access-from-back

I was the sole supervisor that voted against moving the courthouse.  I wanted to stay out of the debate and let the citizens decide, but with so much misinformation and now that the other supervisors spent thousands of your taxpayer dollars to try to convince you, I felt like I had to inform the voters directly.  If you vote “Yes” our County will spend $45 million on the new building.

A “Yes” vote means:

  • If we borrow the $45 million we will have a $2.4 million debt payment per year for 30 years.
  • No combination of economic impact, energy savings or efficiencies will cover the annual cost of a new building.
  • Our debt, which was doubled last year to $90 million would increase to at least $125 million – nearly tripling in just a few years.
  • We will still own and have to maintain court buildings downtown.

A vote “No” means:

  • Saving taxpayer money and reducing wasteful spending.
  • Renovation of Circuit Courthouse will cost about $10 million minus about $2.5 million because of a historic building credit.
  • We can explore other creative and fiscally responsible options for the remaining courts complex.
  • We will be able to use a phased pay as we go approach.
  • Allows for the County to focus on needs such as economic development and roads.

False statements made for moving the Courthouse

  • False: “We will not raise taxes to build a new courthouse” – To do this proponents propose to borrow from other projects (about $10 million), future growth in unrealized income, and a tax increase from last year! Our finances will be so strained that we will have no financial flexibility for contingences.
  • False: “We cannot make the current Circuit Courthouse safe” – A renovated building will receive a 96/100 for safety.
  • False: “We will run out of space in 5-7 years” – Augusta County’s population growth is estimated at 6% in 20 years and our County is getting older.
  • False: “The judge can make us build a new one” – State law prevents the judge from requiring the Board of Supervisors to build a new courthouse or to tear down our old courthouse.
  • False: “Staying in Staunton will cost $59 million” – This is an intentional misrepresentation to scare voters into supporting a move to Verona.

Cost, Debt and Taxes

To build a new courthouse will cost about $45 million.  Annually, this will cost about $2.4 million every year for 30 years. To renovate the Circuit Courthouse will cost about $10 million with about a $2.5 million historic building credit leading the final cost to about $7.5 million.  Annually, this will cost about $500 thousand every year for 20 years.  We will also have to make some improvements to the rest of the courts complex.  Augusta County owes roughly $90 million in debt.  Voting “YES” will increase that to at least $125million if not the full $135 million.  Voting “NO” will increase debt at a substantially lower rate.

The majority of the Board of Supervisors has pledged not to raise taxes for a new courthouse. However, it should be noted that there was a one cent tax increase last year that has already been dedicated to a new courthouse.  To fund the new courthouse will require the removing of about $8 million from savings for a future addition of the jail, the revenues of selling Ladd Elementary and taking about $100 thousand off of every year’s new revenue until we have enough to pay $2.4 million every year in reoccurring revenues.  It is a bit like paying your mortgage after you run out of savings with unknown future pay raises.

Arguments for and against keeping the courthouse.

Proponents of moving the courthouse to Verona make two sets of arguments – the advantages if we move and what would happen if you vote “NO”.

The stated advantages if we move the courthouse to Verona I generally agree with.  A new courthouse will be able to accommodate future population growth.  The new structure will add new courtrooms (that may not be used for many years) and will be about 76% larger.  A new courthouse will have every safety and handicapped accessibility feature offered in a modern public building.   A new courthouse will also have a more efficient design both in flow of people and in energy usage.  While I agree with the advantages moving the courthouse I strongly disagree with the arguments of what happens if you vote “NO”.

What will happen if you vote “NO”.

  • We will run out of space in 5-7 years (I disagree)

There was a report that the Board funded that estimated the cost of the new building and the future growth of court usage.  The estimated cost is relatively easy to determine since other courthouses have been built recently.  To be clear the company that estimated the growth of the court needs has a financial stake in the new building.  The bigger the building the more money they make.  In their growth projections, they estimate that with a 22% growth in population that Augusta will have a 35% increase in court cases, 59% more employees and will need 76% more space!  They use a different methodology for each of the three courts – arbitrarily deleting years when court cases declined, so that they can maximize the projected growth for each court.  Furthermore, the projection that our population is going to grow 22% how now been decreased to 6%.

  • The judge will make us build a $59 million dollar structure and we will have to tear down the old courthouse (I disagree)

The argument made by proponents of the moving the courthouse is that by State Code, a judge can demand that the courthouse can be made safe.  Furthermore, they argue that our current courthouse cannot be made safe and we cannot move to an adjacent property so the old courthouse must be torn down.  This line of logic neglects some important facts.  First, in 2012 I along with the rest of the board of supervisors paid for a feasibility study that demonstrated the courthouse can be made safe. The renovated courthouse will score a 96 out of 100 for safety.  The only recommended standards that a new courthouse cannot make is protection from a car bomb and a snipers.  Frankly, if we ever tried a high profile case we would take additional measures regardless of where the courthouse is located.  The judge cannot not make the board of supervisors do anything with the courthouse according to state law.

  • We cannot accommodate handicapped citizens.  (I disagree)

Part of the unrealistic $59 million dollar estimate is the building of a new parking garage in Staunton.  I think this is a ridiculous suggestion.  There are many creative ways and solutions that are cost effective that will make getting from a parking place to the courthouse much easier.  Additionally, the renovated courthouse will have elevators and ramps.

How I am going to vote.

I do not view this decision, or really any board decision, independently of the entire responsibilities of Augusta.  The decision is not between a new courthouse or a renovated courthouse.  I ask, given all of the needs and wants of the County, how important is a courthouse?  If we had $45 million (and we do not), how would I prioritize spending it?  For our district the paving of roads and expanding of internet access seem more important than a structure that most of us rarely use.  Investing money in economic development has a much higher rate of return.  For the investment of just a few million dollars over the past five years has generated $230 million in new private investment in the County.  In my judgement, the better decision is to make the courthouse sufficient for the next 20 years in an economical way and focus on other more pressing issues.  That is why I am going to vote “NO” on moving the courthouse.

Either way it is going to be messy. If the citizens vote “yes” there will be many who will be upset because they had made decision on biased or incomplete information.  If the citizens vote “NO” we will have to depend on the good faith of Staunton as well as the unknowns of renovating an old structure.  Staunton voted to help acquire the historic building subsides as well as offered another $2.5 million in incentives and assistance (reducing the total cost for Augusta to $5 million).  While they have not voted to remove this help, they could.  Still it is unlikely that a $10 million renovation will end up costing $45 million – even with improvements to the General District courthouse.

 

Picture of rennovated courthouse with handicaped access  from back.PNG