City courts to remain in Franklin

Published 7:20 pm Tuesday, May 14, 2019


[Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story concerning the Southampton County Courthouse.]

Franklin’s City Council voted 5-2 on Monday to pass a resolution stating that the city wishes to keep its lower courts in the Pretlow Street location rather than moving them into the proposed replacement Southampton County Courthouse to be built in Courtland. The resolution also requested that the county put a hold on all spending related to a new courthouse until such time as a more affordable renovation plan is agreed upon by both localities — citing that the city was in “dire financial condition” and would not be able to afford the increases in taxes and debt that would be needed to fund the project.

Councilman Linwood Johnson made the motion to do so, which was seconded by Councilman Bobby Cutchins after P. Daniel Crumpler III, an attorney with a practice in Franklin, presented the Council with evidence suggesting plans to move the city’s General District and Juvenile & Domestic Relations courts to Southampton County were already in the works, despite the City Council never having taken a vote on the matter prior to that evening.

This building was put on this side of town to make it easier for citizens who are poor to get to it,” Crumpler said. “We have people who walk to court, who are dropped off … they can hardly get to court now. How can they get to court when it’s moved to Courtland?”

According to public records Crumpler provided to The Tidewater News and to the members of Council, one of the earliest references to the idea of the city moving its lower courts to Courtland came during a meeting of the county’s Courthouse Committee on May 5, 2016. The Southampton County Board of Supervisors formed this committee a few years ago for the purpose of deciding whether to renovate or replace the existing courthouse at 22350 Main St., Courtland, after Circuit Court judges expressed concerns regarding the condition of the circa-1834 building and its 1960s addition.

According to the recorded minutes for that meeting, now-retired Franklin City Manager R. Randy Martin, who had served as one of the city’s representatives on the committee, brought up the idea of combining the city and county lower courts “since the city is looking at some of the same security issues with their Courts Building.” The matter came up again at the committee’s May 18, 2016, meeting, the recorded minutes for which state, “The City of Franklin representatives spoke of concerns they have with their Courts Building and expressed interest in combining and sharing their lower Courts with the County in the new facility. [Southampton County Clerk of Court] Richard Francis then made a motion to recommend that the Board of Supervisors consider combining the Southampton County and City of Franklin Combined General District and J&DR Courts under one roof. Judge [W. Parker Councill] seconded the motion, which carried unanimously.”

According to emails dated Oct. 20, 2016, between Elliot Law of Moseley Architects and Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson — which Crumpler obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, along with other county and city records concerning the courthouse – Law wrote, “Regarding the concept for expansion of the existing courthouse — the current space needs include the Franklin City District Clerk. For the sake of equal comparisons for the referendum, should we maintain the Franklin City Clerk at the existing courthouse expansion, or would they no longer be interested in moving?” To this, County Administrator Johnson replied, “I’ll defer to Randy [Martin] to confirm it, but I suspect they’d still like to address their own security issues by moving their Courts into the renovated facility. I think they’re in regardless.”

Moseley is the architectural firm Southampton County has retained for the courthouse project, and the same firm that designed the courthouse currently in use in Isle of Wight County.

Martin then replied on Oct. 25, 2016, “I agree with your comment that I expect us to be in any new or renovated facility. I think it necessary to factor us into either projection at the current site or a new site to make a fair comparison.”

The 2017 resolution of the Southampton County Board of Supervisors authorizing a voter referendum to be held on the county’s courthouse options indicates that the Board ultimately accepted the recommendation of the Courthouse Committee to plan any new courthouse facilities to accommodate not only the Circuit Court but also the General District and J&DR courts of both the City of Franklin and Southampton County under one roof.

After presenting this information to the Council, Crumpler argued that the relocation of the city’s lower court facilities would not only increase travel time for city residents, but also be more costly to the city government. County Administrator Johnson had previously confirmed to The Tidewater News in April of this year that shared lower courts would indeed be costlier for the city. The county administrator said that based on the July 1, 2018, population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, Franklin’s share would be 31.76 percent of the cost to build whatever portions of the building are shared between the city and county.

In the event that Franklin chooses to move its General District and J&DR Courts from their current location to the new facility in Courtland, the city would be responsible for funding 31.76 percent of the cost of the entire building, Johnson said. However, if the city’s lower courts remain where they are, that cost drops to 22.23 percent based on the city sharing about 70 percent of the new facility, with the remaining 30 percent dedicated solely to Southampton County. He added that the county’s most recent cost estimates for the project — all of which are at least a year old — ranged from $23 million to $28 million. Assuming these estimates are still accurate, this would make the city’s portion between $5.1 million and $8.89 million.

The dissenting votes on the city’s resolution came from Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham and Councilman Benny Burgess. Cheatham asked for more information on the cost the city would incur to renovate its court building on Pretlow Street, and suggested that the Council hold off taking any action until this information was made available. Burgess similarly requested additional time to read through the documents Crumpler had requested via FOIA before taking action.

City Manager Amanda Jarratt, when asked about the alleged deficiencies in the city’s General District and J&DR Courts building, said she had not seen a written list of safety concerns or other deficiencies reportedly shared with her predecessor.

I am currently researching this item and will report back to City Council any deficiencies with our Courthouse and the cost estimate to remedy any deficiencies,” Jarratt said, adding that even if the city courts were to move to Southampton County, it was her understanding that the city would still receive the revenue associated with the fines and court costs the city’s courts imposed.

The city manager also clarified that the resolution’s request that Southampton’s Board of Supervisors stop spending money on a new courthouse is exactly that, a request. She confirmed that the City of Franklin cannot legally compel the Board of Supervisors to stop spending its own money.

When asked why Crumpler had been allowed more time to address the Council than the five minutes typically allotted for Citizens’ Time speakers, Jarratt said the attorney had first requested time to speak on April 29 and had indicated he would need a longer amount of time. The City Council, she said, ultimately granted his request during their retreat on May 4.

Johnson said on Tuesday morning that he did get a call from Jarratt and that a letter would be sent soon.

“We’ll wait to see [what it says] and then will respond,” he said.

Supervisors’ chairman Dallas Jones said he did not know yet about the council’s action, and could not comment.

STEPHEN H. COWLES, staff writer, contributed to this story.