The Augusta County courthouse is one of the oldest in the Commonwealth of Virginia with its fifth complete tear-down and reconstruction finished in 1901. Since that time the historic building has been renovated and maintained by the County of Augusta and still serves to this day as its court building. However, the old building is at capacity and in need of more space, additional maintenance, and a new roof.
As a member of the Property Committee of Augusta County, one of our responsibilities was to look at the overall condition and cost of repair and maintenance of our public buildings. Last year (2013), the Board of Supervisors had an extensive study and improvement plan completed by Frazier & Associates of Staunton. That study identified a number of important things that needing to be considered when the future use of this building was being decided.
The study looked at the overall condition of the building, the need for additional space, safety and security concerns of its current layout, and what would be needed to keep the building in compliance with the Staunton Historical Society. The total bill for all items listed was around $9.5 million dollars. I considered this to be an extremely large bill that begged the question, “How much additional life could we get out of the historic building with these upgrades and expansion?” The answer I got was conservative at 20 years. In other words, the taxpayers of Augusta County would be on the hook for $9.5 million dollars worth of improvements that would allow the historic court building to suit the needs of the county for another 20 years. Then I asked another question, “How much would a completely new court house cost if it were out in Verona at the Government Center?”
The answer to the question of a new court building was vague. It involved looking at the average cost of new court buildings that had been constructed in the last 3-5 years. It also considered the average square footage of those buildings. The average cost for the average court house was $11.5 million dollars and the people of Augusta would get 50-75 years of life out of the new building. This information presented a difficult question: Do we go ahead with the very much-needed repairs of our historic court building, or do we go ahead and pursue the construction of a new court building at the Verona Government Center complex?
Interestingly enough, the Verona Government Center master plan included the eventual move of the courts to the site and was designed for a new court house to be constructed there one day. The reason for delay was that the historic building still had life within it and the county could save money by leaving the court in Staunton.
Unfortunately, that life has been steadily draining away with each passing year. Last year, when Frazier & Associates conducted their study and gave us the $9.5 million dollar price tag, Augusta County spoke with Staunton about their ability to pitch in for the cost. We were told that wouldn’t be a possibility due to the already over-leveraged state of Staunton’s books leaving the total cost to Augusta County. I was bothered by this because the city of Staunton reaps all of the local tax benefits of having the courts in their city. Basically, they wanted to keep the Augusta County court system and all of the local business that is generated by supporting it and not invest in its continued life there.
This all brings us to our current situation, which I brought forward to the Board of Supervisors last Wednesday evening. Should we set the staff at the Verona Government Center to the task of developing a firm estimate of what a new court building at the government center would be? The purpose being, if the estimate is within a reasonable amount of money when compared to the $9.5 million dollars, then we as a board should proceed to the next step … referendum.
In order for Augusta County to build a new courthouse at the Verona Government Center, the people of Augusta County would need to vote on it during a November election. My thought is simple: 2015 is going to be the last election in our history in which we elect all of the supervisors at the same time. Let’s also ask the people to consider the courthouse. Do we keep the historic court house for 20 more years at the cost of $9.5 million or do we move it and construct a new one for about $11.5 million (or whatever the estimate) that will last 50-75 years?
The Augusta County Board of Supervisors will discuss this at our next staff briefing on Tuesday, May 27, at 1:30 pm. I invite you to come and hear the discussion. It may be historic. As always if you have any questions or concerns please feel free to email me at DavidKaraffa@comcast.net or contact me by looking at the Augusta County Website.