Still no consensus on courthouse

Published 8:04 pm Tuesday, July 16, 2019


Even after a roughly 1-1/2-hour joint work session on Monday evening, elected officials in Franklin and Southampton County appeared no closer to a consensus on whether to renovate the existing Southampton County Courthouse — which both localities share — or build new on a contiguous (adjacent) parcel.

Both options are projected to be multi-million dollar projects, with Franklin on the hook for funding about 32 percent and Southampton County funding the remaining 68 percent, per the terms outlined in the city’s 1961 charter.

“It’s absolutely true they [judges] can’t make you build a new courthouse, but that’s irrelevant,” said Franklin District Board of Supervisors Representative Barry Porter. “They can make you provide a facility that meets the [Virginia Supreme Court] guidelines.”

Porter’s comments were in reference to Virginia Code 15.2-1634, which states in layman’s terms that if a county’s or city’s court facilities are found to be insecure, out of repair or pose a danger to the health and safety of court employees or to the public, Circuit Court judges can issue an order compelling the locality to make the necessary repairs or improvements. Section E of this code, however, states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize a circuit court to require that an additional or replacement courthouse be constructed.”

He added, “In most cases, adapting an old building to meet the guidelines costs more than building a new courthouse. When you start renovating a 200-year-old building, you get surprises. It always costs more than you think it will cost.”

“I think we need to realize once the referendum failed, from the city’s perspective, we’re at the mercy of what the county does,” said Franklin Mayor Frank Rabil. “We realize we’re on the hook for our percentage … we’ve got to do some financial planning of our own for how to handle this.”

The referendum to which Rabil refers was held in November 2017, and resulted in an overwhelming majority of city and county voters casting “no” votes to the ballot question, “Shall the courthouse be removed to 30100 Camp Parkway, Courtland, VA and shall the Board of Supervisors be permitted to spend $26.5 million therefor?” County and city officials had, prior to the election, explained “no” votes to mean the existing courthouse would be renovated. However, in the summer of 2018, the Board of Supervisors “short-listed” three options from the original seven that Moseley Architects, the project architect, had presented. These three options ranged in cost from $23 million to $28 million, and all called for a new courthouse to be constructed on land that was contiguous, meaning adjacent or across the street, from the existing courthouse.

Franklin Councilman Bobby Cutchins, however, still questioned — as he had during previous City Council meetings — whether Franklin could be compelled to fund a project over which it has no control.

“I can’t imagine the city of Franklin, with its charter when it was done, agreeing to pay 32 percent of anything that you don’t have a say or a voice in,” Cutchins said. “That’s poor business. I can’t picture anybody ever doing that.”

He then added, “That appears to be the situation the city is in,” and said, “We’ll fight … to do what’s right for the city of Franklin.”

Franklin Councilman Greg McLemore stated the current cost estimates for the three “contiguous” options the Board of Supervisors short-listed last summer would necessitate a tax increase of 6 cents on Franklin residents. City Manager Amanda Jarratt confirmed McLemore’s figure to be accurate, and said this figure had come from Davenport, the city’s financial advisor. The city manager then explained that the 6-cent increase would be the case if the city restructures its existing debt profile. If it does not restructure its existing debt, its share of the courthouse cost could potentially necessitate a tax increase as high as 13 cents, she said. County Administrator Mike Johnson told the newspaper on Tuesday that the projected impact on Southampton County’s real estate tax rate, according to a presentation by Davenport to the county Board of Supervisors on Feb. 25 of this year, ranges between an increase of 3 to 7 cents, depending on the total amount borrowed and the market rates at the time the debt is issued.

“We just raised taxes 4 cents,” McLemore said, referring to the city’s adopted 2019-2020 budget. “We will have to raise our taxes an additional 6 cents, so [factoring in the 4-cent increase] we’re talking at least 10 cents for everything we have to do. Our citizens don’t want it, can’t afford it.”

Councilman Linwood Johnson agreed, stating, “If we engage in the cost that is given, the economical growth not only for the city but for the county will be dead, because no one will come into this area to start a business with high taxes. Other cities are seeing that now.”

The councilman added, “Individuals have said we have no choice, there is another side to the story. At the end of the day, the people are the ones who have to pay the bill. Neither budget, the city nor the county, has the budget to afford a new courthouse. We don’t have it. We have to face reality.”

Porter, however, said, “I encourage you to check out what happened in Rockbridge County, Lexington County … they had meetings just like this, problems just like we had. They swore up and down that they couldn’t afford to do this and at the end of the day, they ended up working with the courts … They didn’t get to the writ of mandamus, but they did get the show cause order. Just getting a show cause order increases the cost of a project significantly.”

The Franklin District supervisor added that he had been in contact with representatives of these localities and had learned that following the show cause order, costs increased 25 to 60 percent beyond the initial estimates.

“I hate to see us do something where we could have done it for a 6-cent tax increase, and it costs us 12 cents,” Porter said.

“We don’t have a choice; we have to do something,” Boykins/Branchville District Representative Carl Faison agreed. “I have no problems with renovation but … let’s not fool ourselves, we’re not going to end up with a cheap courthouse. We’re going to have to pay for it.”

McLemore and Johnson both suggested that the Board of Supervisors obtain a second opinion from an architect other than Moseley on the cost of renovating versus building new. County Administrator Johnson, however, said that Moseley was the county’s second architect. The county had originally hired PMA Architecture in 2008, Johnson explained, for courthouse security improvements, which Circuit Court judges asked the county to put on hold in 2015, citing the need for additional work. The county had then retained PMA to do a space needs analysis for a total renovation of the existing courthouse, as well as for a new courthouse, but later hired Moseley in 2016 to review PMA’s work and to assist the county’s Courthouse Committee.

One point of contention concerning Franklin had been whether the city’s General District Court and Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court would remain at their current location on Pretlow Street or be combined with Southampton County’s lower courts all under one roof in a new or renovated building. During a Franklin City Council meeting in May, P. Daniel Crumpler III, an attorney with a practice in Franklin, had presented information to the Council suggesting that plans were already in the works to move the city’s courts to Southampton County despite the lack of a formal Council vote to do so. This resulted in Franklin’s City Council voting 5-2 to pass a resolution informing the county’s Board of Supervisors that the city wished to keep its lower courts in Franklin. The city, according to Jarratt, is still in the process of trying to obtain information from judges on what, if any, improvements need to be made to the city’s combined courts building.

“I understand Franklin’s position, they want to keep their courthouse,” Faison said. “If that’s something that can be done, that’s great. Whatever the solution, we have to work together.”