Augusta County Courthouse: In Response to Dickie Bell’s Criticism

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Delegate Dickie Bell (R-20th House) recently penned an op-ed in the Staunton News Leader about the upcoming Augusta County Courthouse referendum where he questioned if Augusta County supervisors had done their homework on the issue that will be on the November 8 ballot.

Anyone who has talked with Augusta County officials knows those issues have been studied by supervisors for a decade, not to mention the plan to consolidate county services in Verona has been on the table for 25 years.

The October 12 Board of Supervisors meeting addressed some of what Bell brought up, misinformation that has been disseminated by the two Staunton-based organizations made up of powerful lawyers, judges, and businessmen as well as Richmond-based opponents, that are against moving the court facilities to Verona.

Though he represents a portion of Augusta County, Bell lives in the city and cannot vote for the Courthouse Referendum on November 8. Indeed, his voter base is 46 percent in Augusta County and 18 percent in Staunton, and in the last election Augusta County voters backed him 84 percent to Staunton’s 66 percent. By taking sides, he may have risked alienating Augusta County voters as well as supervisors and court staff whom he insulted with the “homework” comment.

The reality is county leaders have researched for years and weighed the costs as well as very important and necessary safety factors to determine that the need for a new courthouse is the most prudent use of tax money rather than continuing to pour funds into the undersized and outdated downtown courthouse. If the referendum passes on November 8, will Bell have to cover his tracks with his county voters?

Bell questioned three points in his op-ed.

His first point:

Population projections used in the plan are deeply flawed. The plan uses population projections from 2010 that are proving to be highly inaccurate now, let alone two decades into the future.

Often used as a talking point by those against moving the Courthouse, the “population projection” argument claimed an extra court room was not necessary at the proposed Verona location. This, however, was addressed by county administrator Tim Fitzgerald at the October 12 meeting. The county looked at the Supreme Court case load data for 2015 and updated population projections — figures that will not be officially published until December — but it provided a fair growth record for future projections. The figures remained relevant and on track for a new Courthouse’s need for an extra courtroom to cover future growth.

His second point:

Based on my previous experience with the Middle River Regional Jail project, first estimates are often the least accurate.

This red herring comment ignores the fact the Middle River Regional Jail was a joint effort of the three localities — Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County — with 50 percent of the funding from the state. It was not an “Augusta County” project … it was a collective effort of all … not to mention Bell’s criticism would apply to the hastily gathered Staunton Courthouse plans.

His third point:

The county has failed at using Supreme Court guidelines as a benchmark that supports moving. Guidelines call for the formation of a planning oversight committee and a formal needs assessment, both elements which are not included in the county’s plan. It also discusses examining the feasibility of renovation and considering the historical and architectural value of the existing courthouse, both elements which have seemingly been ignored.

This is yet another talking point of the group opposed to moving the Courthouse. The proposed Courthouse in Verona is 100 percent compliant with Supreme Court guidelines, while there is a question of whether the hastily proposed Staunton are compliant.  As to the “committee” approach, that was the route used in 2001 in Rockbridge County when their Supervisors had a $13 million plan rejected by the voters.  The “committee” has assigned and forced a $29 million Courthouse structure that has resulted in Lexington and Rockbridge incurring serious fiscal stress issues.

Bell went on to inaccurately say, “Adding to that, the current courthouse will cost county taxpayers no matter the outcome of the referendum. If it fails, the county will need to maintain the building, which it has neglected to do for decades. If it passes, the county will need to either repurpose, still requiring significant updates and maintenance, or sell, likely at a huge loss due to the aforementioned neglect. Faced with that choice, the most cost-effective choice from the start would have been to maintain, renovate (at a far lesser cost than building anew), and continue using the building as intended.”

Yet another of the anti side’s talking points, let’s look at the falseness of this. Millions of dollars have been spent on each building, most notably the renovation of the upstairs to restore the 1901 building to its past grandeur.  But the limitations presented in the existing size and configuration of the building make security and work space needs unattainable no matter how beautifully the building is restored.

Building a new Courthouse does not mean the current 1901 building would be abandoned. The county is exploring many options including one that uses the General District Court as an alternative to funding new space for Social Services needs.  The Circuit Court building will need far less cost to make it usable as a public building rather than as a Courthouse, and gives the County a building for a variety of uses that will benefit Staunton and the County.

When he lumps together the Courthouse as being the same as the County Seat, Delegate Bell appears to lack an understanding of how the Courthouse became known as the “County Seat.” Originally, Courthouses were all-purpose buildings housing County government (administration, tax collection, sheriff’s office). However, that is no longer the case and all of these functions now reside in Verona, making it the de facto County Seat.  Only the Courthouse keeps Augusta from having a consolidated County Seat. By bringing together all county services at the Government Center, Augusta is fulfilling its goal to make government as efficient and accessible as possible for its citizens, a vision that has been in the making 25 years.

Taking sides and disseminating misleading information is unfair to constituents who want to see the Courthouse moved to the county, and it is unfair trying to tell Augusta County how to spend their money or second-guess the decisions of local officials. There are plenty of financial problems in Richmond to keep this state representative busy.

What you can do to learn more:                                   

For more information, see:

Letters to the Editor in favor of moving Courthouse to Verona:

#VoteYES on November 8.

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