Petition calls for vote on courthouse plans
A group of Morgan County residents have petitioned the County Commission to allow citizens to vote on the plans to build a $12.7 million County Courthouse complex.
The residents felt that the building was far beyond anything that the county could afford. They suggested other options such as using space at War Memorial Hospital for county offices once the new hospital was built. That might not be until two or three years from now, noted County Commissioner Glen Stotler.
Kim Mills, who placed the petition at several places in town, said that they had 594 signatures. Several more people signed the petition at the May 4 Morgan County Commission meeting where some residents spoke on the issue. Copies of their petition are being faxed to Governor Joe Manchin.
The group asked if the Commissioners were willing to hold a public meeting on the issue. County Commissioner Tommy Swaim said that they had already held a couple public meetings on the courthouse and that he hadn't seen some of the people present there. Mills said that she worked nights and couldn't attend.
Stotler said that the Commission had two published public meetings for people to express their opinions and concerns. He felt there was no need for another public meeting until there was something to talk about, such as choosing another courthouse option.
Their architect had drawn up courthouse plans based on determined county needs, he said. The second and third floors of the courthouse complex were totally for the courts and the circuit clerk and prosecuting attorney's office too. The Commission offices would not be housed there.
It's just a plan and there's no final decision, said Stotler. We need to build something that is going to serve the county for the next 100 years, said Stotler.
"You can't build it if you don't have the money," said Stotler.
The county has around $8-$9 million to rebuild the County Courthouse, he said. Stotler hopes that the county might get some assistance from the state through a no-interest loan. If the funding isn't there to build what was designed, "then we'll have to back up, scale down and look at other options," said Stotler.
Courtroom needs, tax increase
Mills asked why the county was moving
Magistrate and Family Court when we just
paid for the building's renovation. Stotler
said with new Supreme Court requirements for courtrooms that housing all the courts in one building would be better because two locations doubles the manpower, security and bailiffs needed.
Jim Dupont wanted assurances that the County Commission would not raise taxes again next year to fund this project. Swaim said that he would never raise taxes next year for that purpose. Stotler concurred and said that he hoped that the income generated by the tax increase would be enough. The tax money is expected to cover the debt service for a $4 million revenue bond.
Swaim said that he wished the town had taken the step the county did to raise taxes to 112% so they would have had enough to cover debt service on the space they are requesting in the new courthouse complex. Mayor Susan Webster reminded Swaim that "we are your constituents too." She said that the Governor thought that combining facilities was a good idea to consolidate debt and services.
Jim Slough claimed that the county income had doubled with increased assessments and wanted to know where the money was going. He said that tax bills had gone through the roof and that residents weren't seeing any services.
Portia Henry asked if the county could get grants to rebuild. Stotler said that the state typically doesn't help with grants on these kinds of projects.
Square footage figures
Dawn White said she was appalled by the square footage figure, which she said was actually $246 a square foot and not $230 a square foot. The figures were "off the wall" and they wouldn't pay that in the DC area, White said. White also contacted area contractors to get their take on the prices.
Swaim, who is a contractor, said that he would rather an architect over estimate costs than underestimate them. White also was concerned about the percentage rate that the architect was being paid for the project instead of a prevailing hourly rate.
Stotler said it was very common on big projects that architects received a percentage for their work. They advertised for an architect and received 25 responses, said Stotler. Those applications were reviewed and three candidates were interviewed. A committee of three retired engineers and two County Commissioners were involved in the interviews and selecting the architect, he said.
If the residents wanted a public vote, what options did they want, to annex War Memorial Hospital for office space, asked County Commissioner Brenda Hutchinson. Like Stotler, Hutchinson wasn't sure how the courthouse issue could be put to a vote.
Hutchinson was open to another public meeting, but said she wished she could have heard these comments before they had voted for a tax increase. It was a hard decision to raise taxes, one that Hutchinson said she lost sleep over.
All the comments about the courthouse design were positive ones at the public meetings, said Hutchinson. She said she was tired of the squabbling over the courthouse and that "we need to present a united front to the Governor."
The county could continue to have their offices in "trailer city", pave over the courthouse site and make it a parking lot, if that was the will of the people, she said.
"We're here to serve," said Hutchinson.
But she cautioned everyone to "think forward, think what you want to leave for your children and the future."
"We need to have a courthouse on the corner and it needs to be something we can be proud of," said Hutchinson.
The county is exploring other options and courthouse configurations that could allow them to build a courthouse complex for $8-$9 million, if necessary.