Public speaks on judicial center
In a 4-1 vote with District 2 Supervisor Rosemary Mahan being the lone dissent, the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors voted to accept the low bid for the proposed judicial center provided the county’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA) agrees to be the conduit for funding by applying for a loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development. The IDA is holding a public hearing on Sept. 6 at 6 p.m. in the Westmoreland County General District Courtroom. (NOTE: This is a change from the date originally published in The Westmoreland News.)
In addition to the base project, which includes the 39,000 square-foot, two-story complex that will house the sheriff’s office, three court systems and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, supervisors voted to accept the low bid for an add-on that will leave an unfinished portion on the second floor for future expansion options. In the base design, the rear of the building is a single level housing the sheriff’s office. The add-on will put an unfinished second story over the sheriff’s office.
Richard Funk, vice president of dBF Associates, the architect that has drafted the floor plan of the building, explained to those gathered at the meeting on Aug. 13 how the building will be laid out.
The circuit courtroom and circuit court clerk will be located on the first floor, along with the general district courtroom and clerk and sheriff’s office. There will be a public entrance in the front of the building facing Polk Street. The public will have access to the courtrooms and clerk’s offices. There will also be a public entrance in the rear of the building for citizens to have access to the sheriff’s office.
There will be a separate entrance for prisoners, Funk said. It will be a secure entrance through a sally port. The prisoners will travel along a secured hallway to the center of the building to secure holding cells situated between the two courtrooms.
There will also be a separate entrance for staff.
The second floor will house the Juvenile and Domestic Relations clerk’s office and two hearing rooms. There will be holding cells between those two rooms as well. A secure stairwell and elevator will allow deputies escort prisoners upstairs.
Supervisors stated at a July 30 special meeting that taxes would not need to be raised to fund the project. Supervisors were presented with two funding options by financial advisors Davenport & Company.
The first option calls for borrowing the full amount of the project cost plus a 5 percent contingency and expect a debt service of $407.000 for 38 years of the 40-year loan. During the first two years of the loan, the county would see lower payments because those payments would be strictly interest paid on the construction costs. With this option, the county would borrow $8.7 million and the total cost of the loan over the 40-years period (including the principal and interest) is $15.9 million.
The second option has the county borrowing 90 percent of the project cost. This option does not include a 5 percent contingency fund. The debt service would be lowered to $350,000 for 38 years of the loan with the first two years being lower as with the first scenario. The county would borrow $7.5 million and the total cost of the loan would be $13.7 million for the 40-year loan.
In both scenarios, the county does not need to raise taxes to pay the debt service because of revenues produced by the county courts in fees and from funds that are currently being used for rent on an E911 tower and land. The county will also have extra money in the general fund beginning in 2020 when it is no longer making rental payments for the A.T. Johnson building, and the debt service for the three libraries in the county has been cleared.
Supervisors opted for the second funding option.
The vote followed a public hearing in which several county residents expressed doubt over building the facility.
John Butler said it seemed to him that the county was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to pay for the courthouse. He also stated that he believed the county should build only a sheriff’s office, relocate other county offices to vacant business locations in the town of Montross and remodel the George D. English building to be a safer courtroom facility.
Funk responded that options and other similar to it had been explored, but that the English building did not allow for future expansion.
Dan Hughes said he was opposed to the sheriff’s office have an access road off of Carver Street.
We have pets and children and it’s quiet,” Hughes said. “We’d like to keep it that way.”
Kennon Morris said he did not believe that the English building could not be made into an acceptable courthouse facility.
“We have schools falling down,” Morris said. “Maybe if you worked with the school system a little better, you wouldn’t have so many people going to the courthouse.”
Eddie Bowen, whose property is adjacent to the property where the complex will be, complained that no one from the county have contacted him to ask him how he feels about the project.
“I have three children,” Bowen said. “I don’t want them next to a sally port where prisoners will be coming and going.”
One county resident, who did not identify himself, asked those present who were in support of the courthouse to raise their hands. No one did.
When it came to a vote for the supervisors, Mahan expressed doubt over the project.
“I can’t ignore the signs. I can’t ignore the deafening non-show of hands,” Mahan said. “As much as I love what it looks like and what it stands for and what the sheriff’s office needs, I’m not going to be able to vote for it.”