Why you might vote ‘Yes’ and how to pay for it

Published 10:14 am Friday, November 3, 2017

To the Editor:

I realize that much has been written about the courthouse, to which I will add my personal opinion. 

Franklin’s and Southampton County’s Chief Judge, acting within statutory authority, as well as judges at each level of our courts, have determined that the courthouse no longer meets the needs of the courts. While security is paramount, handicapped accessibility, space needs, fire suppression and defeating mold in an increasingly moist environment are among additional concerns. After extensive study, two separate engineering firms concluded that the recommended standards for courthouses in Virginia cannot be met by renovating the present structure. Subsequently, a $7.75 million “compromise” proposal was suggested and rejected by the court in a six-page letter. Thus, after a year and a half of study and discussion, it appears from all accounts that a new structure will be built one place or another.

Some of my friends have argued that renovation will work or that negotiations as to final cost are still viable, but the court has already responded to specific proposals, and so the vote on Tuesday.

With this much money at stake, this is a matter properly before the voters. Voters might vote “Yes” if they do not think it proper stewardship of taxpayer money to spend $26.5 million:

• in a flood zone, next to a river.

• where the ground water level continues to rise, making moisture control unmanageable.

• within a two-acre spot, hemmed in on all sides.

• knowing that one day, we will need a new jail, equally hemmed in.

• where one-sixth of the footprint will be committed to trying to make an 1834 building (square peg), fit the needs of a 2020 courthouse (round hole.)

Heaven forbid that we demolish an old building that fails to even qualify on the Virginia Registry of Historic Buildings; not to mention that it is situated smack between the jail and any new courthouse construction, has porous bricks, rotting columns, etc. Even the Historical Society did not want the old brick portion, in part, because “it has been too long neglected.” It might have been a proper “nod” to the past to recreate the old columns and overhang as the focal point of a new courthouse… anyway, that’s my rant.

• where most patrons will have to walk 300 yards or more from the parking area to Courthouse.

• and not have Courthouse perimeter security zones.  We are not Oklahoma City, but….

• to twice move the fragile records that date back to 1749 (to temporary facility and back again).

• to relocate trials, juries, witnesses, Court services for 18-plus months, during construction, to Suffolk and/or Isle of Wight.

While I might choose to build next to a river or continue to maintain my ’83 motorcycle, I would not spend taxpayer money on either (poor analogy, but you get my point.)

Granted, the proposed site for a new courthouse is not perfect, but the land comes at a reasonable price and in relatively close proximity to water and sewer. In choosing the site, the committee properly rejected a superior site offered at $50,000 per acre for off-road farmland. There has been a Facebook offer to sell about three acres of courthouse-adjacent land (upon which a historically registered house sits) for $800,000 — though tax assessed at $300,000. Both purchases would not pass the “stewardship test” as to location/cost. A friend has written suggesting that the houses and law office on the jail side of the courthouse might be available. To date, no offer has been made to the county and taking land by condemnation is “off the table.” Unfortunately, such land is also hemmed in by Main Street and is in the 100-year flood plain.

It is easy to say that I work in the courthouse and “naturally” want a new facility. You will recall that I initially voted against “moving the Courthouse” because I wanted a second opinion from the firm which performed the 2008 security study. As fate would have it, we ended up hiring this firm. I LOVE where I work, especially our Records Room, and regret that under either scenario it will be lost. The problem is that your employees in the rest of the building work under dangerous conditions: mold, moisture, lack of security. There are deputies working behind the scenes with incarcerated witnesses where juveniles must be held separate from adults, men separate from women, Commonwealth witnesses separate from defense witnesses; a herculean task when there are only three holding cells (none with handicapped access) in the current building, serving two courts at a time. This past summer, some juveniles and adults had to be “staged” in separate, running patrol cars, awaiting their time in court. This is a waste of officer time, vehicle resources and adds a level of danger to all involved.

Look, I’m going to work wherever the County puts me, as long as my staff and the records (of which I am the steward) are protected. Twenty six and one-half million dollars are a lot of money to spend anywhere, especially for Southampton and Franklin where there are other capital needs demanding attention. Whether rebuilt on site or at the new location, the price tag will still be $26-plus million, so how do we pay for it? It is time we consider suspending the Land Use tax scheme for timberland until we get our ‘capital needs house’ in order. I don’t see how homeowners can continue to subsidize timberland (like mine), held for investment purposes — or why they should. Ending the woodlands program would generate about $1.25 million per year and would keep the full burden from falling on the homeowners.

Everyone needs a house, they don’t need investment timberland. We can no longer afford the timberland program. Let’s start that discussion.

Rick Francis