Pyles op-ed: Augusta-Staunton consolidation may not save money

By Lynn R. Mitchell

After 25 years of plans by Augusta County to consolidate its government services in Verona, it finally looked as if the Augusta County Courthouse issue was moving toward a resolution by putting the question on the November 2015 ballot to allow county citizens the opportunity to decide if they wanted to see the courts moved to the Verona.

All forward momentum unexpectedly stopped at the last supervisors meeting when a vote to put the referendum on the ballot was ignored, a new motion to further study the issue was made, and five supervisors voted for the study. Two supervisors voted against it. There are questions as to whether all supervisors knew of the change before the public meeting.

Supervisor Tracy Pyles had an op-ed in Sunday’s Staunton News Leader addressing the issue that seems to never end. Here are his thoughts:

Courts consolidation won’t save local money
By Tracy Pyles
Supervisor, Pastures District, Augusta County

Can Staunton afford an equitable arrangement with Augusta County on the courthouse? Mayor Carolyn Dull’s January letter to the Board of Supervisors was pragmatic arguing against anything more than minimal help for Augusta.

Staunton revisited its finances and now proposes paying 25 percent of the $48,000,000 project. The 25 percent reflects an approximation of Staunton’s share of the combined courts work. However, when Augusta asked for the basis for the 25 percent figure, a larger share was revealed. The revised calculation is 34 percent. An “equitable” cost share would increase Staunton’s obligation from $12 million to $16.32 million.

Much has been made about cost savings from courts consolidation. Please know this is simply a talking point without substantiated merit. The state pays the salaries for the three constitutional offices under discussion. If positions are eliminated, the state may save, but local taxpayers will see little benefit. Fewer funded positions, however, will impact the performances of these offices as the work volume is unrelated to structure.

Staunton seemingly has two overriding issues for wanting to keep the courthouse. One is the continuation of an historic court in the city’s historic district and the other is downtown commerce.

Were Staunton to buy and renovate the old courthouse and team it with the Cochran Judicial Center, the court needs of the Queen City would be settled for many years. (Though the requirement for mandatory hard hats in the Cochran facility may reduce worker efficiency.) This should satisfy the Historic Staunton Foundation and those who believe this building, as a courthouse is the lynchpin of the downtown. It also serves the best interests of the Staunton taxpayer.

As to the loss of commerce; let’s cooperatively work on this. The social services building in Verona is in need of significant, costly renovations. Perhaps Staunton could work with Augusta and Waynesboro to relocate these offices to Staunton rather than fund upgrades in Verona. Offsets can be found if we apply ourselves.

Staunton should not be pressured into a poor financial decision. Augusta County should not be cajoled into losing the full value of its dollars when spending for renovations or new construction in Staunton.

Neither locality should take up the complicated issue of consolidation of constitutional offices without a projected savings. Augusta knows the cost and value of moving the courts to Verona. What we don’t have is a full understanding of facts for maintaining our courts in Staunton.

Negotiations for consolidated courts in Staunton, prior to more information, strikes me as “ready, fire, aim.”

At the very least it would be nice if supervisors included all districts in the decisions as important as the courthouse.

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