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County eyes holding court in school

Southampton County hopes to lease the former Hunterdale Elementary School building to house the county’s Circuit Court, clerk’s office and Commonwealth Attorney while its courthouse undergoes an 18-month renovation and expansion.

The county expects to break ground on the renovations this September. The lease would run from Aug. 1 this year through Jan. 31, 2023, when construction is projected to be complete.

In the interim, County Administrator Mike Johnson estimates the Circuit Court, clerk’s office and Commonwealth’s Attorney will collectively need roughly 20,300 square feet of temporary space. The roughly 42,000-square-foot school building located just outside Franklin’s city limits currently houses the county school system’s Fresh Start alternative education program for students in grades 6-12 whose behavioral issues prevent them from attending their regular school.

Johnson entered negotiations with county’s School Board at the board’s March 8 meeting, offering the school system rent in the amount of $30,000 a month for 18 months, plus $300,000 to relocate the Fresh Start program to modular units and $14,950 for air conditioning, heating units and fire alarms — a total of $854,950. Since Franklin shares use of the Circuit Court, clerk’s office and Commonwealth’s Attorney with Southampton County, it will bear responsibility for a percentage of this cost.

Johnson said the city’s exact share will be determined once and if details are finalized.

The payments from the county could potentially fund several school capital improvement projects, among them upgrading the school system’s transportation routing software, new school furniture and constructing a student activities building at Capron Elementary School.

If the Hunterdale negotiations fall through, the county has developed a backup plan to place modular offices in front of the Southampton County Administration Center in Courtland. The Southampton County Fair Board has also indicated a willingness to lease space at the county fairgrounds.

Per the latest estimate from the county’s project architect, Glavé & Holmes, the courthouse renovation will cost roughly $20 million — $16 million for the construction work plus $1.76 million for planning and design and $2.3 million for temporary facilities, furnishings and equipment. The city of Franklin will be on the hook for just over 21% ($4.2 million) of that figure based on its population of 8,261 to the county’s 17,855 and the precise amount of square footage it will share with the county. The county will be responsible for the remaining $15.8 million.

The city is planning to couple $1.65 million in refinanced existing debt with $5.5 million in new money to pay for its share of the courthouse project plus other capital needs, which may necessitate a 5-cent real estate tax increase.

The city has offered the use of its courts building on Pretlow Street to house the county’s General District and Juvenile & Domestic Relations courts and their associated combined clerk’s office — so it can expect reimbursement from the county for the cost it incurs while hosting district court cases.

“The city will be tracking these costs and billing the county,” Johnson said.