Council presented with ballot, courthouse plans

Published 11:55 am Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson and Moseley Architect Tony Bell appeared before Franklin’s City Council during its meeting on Monday evening, and presented the wording of the ballot question to be put to voters on Nov. 7 concerning the potential relocation of the Southampton County Courthouse.

According to Johnson, the wording on voters’ ballots will appear as follows: “Shall the courthouse be removed to 30100 Camp Pkwy., Courtland and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend $26,500,000 therefore?” The only answers voters may give are yes or no. Wording the question in this manner with only yes or no options is mandated by the Code of Virginia.

Johnson explained that the reason he was presenting that night was that the Code of Virginia also mandates that cities with populations of less than 10,000 are required to share the cost of circuit court with the neighboring county, but are allowed to maintain their own, separate general district and juvenile courts. The city’s share of the county’s circuit court costs amounts to roughly 30 percent.

The reason that the county has been investigating relocating the courthouse is because its current facility on Main Street in Courtland does not meet health and safety standards or space needs as defined by state statutes. In November 2015, circuit court judges expressed concerns regarding the facility and a subsequent architectural study found the following deficiencies: screening area is grossly undersized, no CCTV with cameras, no intrusion detection system for first-floor windows or doors, no interior or exterior access control (a credit card-like key system that logs time in and time out), no public address system, no emergency generator, no secure parking for judges and staff, no secure interior circulation system for judges or staff, no fire protection system, egress stairs and corridors do not meet modern building and safety codes, HVAC system components are between 20 and 57 years old, heavy concentrations of mold in several parts of the building, electrical system is in the basement – which is prone to flooding, and the building itself is located in a flood plain.

The study also found that based on current case loads, space needs are expected to double over the next 20 years, necessitating a facility of at least 44,000 square feet, not to include the basement. The current facility measures 23,000 square feet, not counting the basement.

“It is not at all uncommon for the courts to exercise this option if the county fails to meet their needs,” Johnson said, referring to the Code of Virginia.

He added that, while as of yet, the county has not been ordered by the state to fix the courthouse, he and county staff have been working with the courts to fix these issues before they are ordered to do so, because if so ordered, the state would take over much of the process and local governments would have little to no say in the end result. Plus, having the state take over the project would likely increase the project’s overall cost.

To explore their options, county staff contracted with Moseley Architects to obtain plans for either a new courthouse to be located on Camp Parkway near the Virginia State Police station or a renovation of the existing courthouse in Courtland. Bell presented his firm’s designs for either scenario, which both call for a two-story building and no basement. Regardless of which option voters choose, he said that the earliest either would be complete is mid-2020.

Additional business conducted that evening included the introduction of Ann G. White, the city’s new director of social services, and the formal appropriation of funds pertaining to actions Council took last month Those actions were to participate in ReInvent Hampton Roads for $5,000 and to accept a roughly $1.7 million federal grant to improve Franklin’s airport, which carries a local cost of $36,280.

They also appropriated an additional $1,222 in Title VIB Special Education funds to Franklin City Public Schools’ budget for the year. The budget amendment, which included each of these line items, passed in a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Greg McLemore voting no.

The council then discussed the potential rotation of council members appointed to the city’s shared services committee with the county, but ultimately decided to table the issue until the council’s next retreat. The members also considered discussing the removal of Confederate monuments from government property, but the motion to amend the agenda to include that discussion failed in a 2-2 vote with three abstentions.

The council concluded with a scheduled discussion of the city’s ongoing issues with lack of wireless communications service. City Manager R. Randy Martin said that he and Mayor Frank Rabil recently met with representatives of Verizon Wireless.

“We finally got the right people down here from their [Verizon’s] technical group and they did a good job explaining to us why the service is bad,” Martin said.

Rabil said that based on his conversation with Verizon, city residents could expect some improvement by October to November of this year.

Councilman Benny Burgess added that he had heard a lot of complaints regarding landline phone and internet connections from residents who had Charter, but Rabil said that the meeting he and Martin attended was strictly with Verizon and concerning wireless communications.