Wednesday, July 17, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

A 28-year-old building is worn out? You must be kidding. Only in government.



That’s our reaction to numerous aspects of a consultant firm’s purported study of the Alamance County judiciary system’s space “needs.”

The consultant firm has concluded that Alamance County should expand its courts facilities by two to three times its current footprint.

Unbelievable finding No. 1: New & renovated would cost about the same – As improbable as it seems to us, the consultant insists it would cost about the same (each with preposterously high cost estimates of approximately $82 MILLION) to build a brand new 140,000-square-foot court building as to renovate the existing Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House (formerly and often still referred to as the criminal courts facility or building), which is 30,000 square feet, and ADD another 110,000-square-foot court building beside it. Either new building would be four stories tall, taller than any existing county buildings.

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And, of course, that doesn’t include another $16.48 MILLION in new furniture, computers, etc., so-called “soft costs,” according to the study.  We don’t know why the “old” furniture wouldn’t be good enough anymore.  But that’s among the least of our worries with this spendthrift study.

So the real cost is almost $100 MILLION!

Unbelievable finding No. 2: a building only 28 years old might be torn down – So that means the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House, which was brand new and opened in late 1993 (i.e., is barely 28 years old), could be torn down entirely, according to one of the options presented by the consultants.

Where, except in government, would anyone consider a building that’s only three decades old to have outlived its useful purpose?

The Historic Court House is 99 years old (built in 1923); the Civil Courts Building was built in 1966 (thus 56 years in service); the county’s office building next to it was built in 1974 (48 years old).  Surely, no one in their right mind would seriously consider demolishing a building that’s less than 30 years old.

And, just by the way, keep in mind that the building is only open on (non-holiday) weekdays.  So it’s actually been open for business to the public only about 30 percent of the time during those 28 years.

Houses, commercial buildings, and industrial buildings all have longer life spans than is being projected for the Allen Court House.

Oh yeah, and what about all the millions of dollars poured into both the Historic Court House and Civil Courts Building for renovations and upgrades over the past 10 years of so?  Apparently all for naught.

The Civil Courts Building, we guess, will have to be renovated and re-outfitted, costing taxpayers more millions, we suppose, in order to accommodate a proliferation of county officials.

Unbelievable issue No. 3: a rather biased, self-interested committee – Apparently only those with a “stake” in the building had any input.  The committee was comprised entirely of court-related personnel, so we’re quite sure the size of individual offices and their estimate of space “needs” was inflated by each participant’s perceived need for “more space.”

Pardon us if we question the objectivity of those who might stand to benefit the most from lavish new digs at the taxpayers’ expense.  People, government employees especially, always seem ready to spend someone else’s money.

We’re willing to bet some of the court workers’ fantabulous “needs” included corner offices that everyone covets.

County commissioner Pam Thompson raised what we think is a reasonable question about whether the people who would use the building – defense attorneys or, better yet, the public at large – had any input.

Nope.  Didn’t need (or want) their opinions.  The government will only want their money to finance the construction – and ongoing operations.

Unbelievable issue No. 4: more courtrooms than judges – The consultant apparently envisions an explosion in crime and contentious lawsuits inasmuch as the plans call for almost doubling the number of courtrooms.

Currently the county has three courtrooms in the Allen Court House, three more in the Civil Courts Building, and the largest on the top floor of the Historic Court House.  By our math, that’s a total of seven.  Which is typically more than enough, since the county has only six judges – four at the district court level and two more superior court judges.

But, for some reason, the consultant’s plan envisions 12 courtrooms! (Not counting the remaining one in the Historic Court House, although it’s not clear if they intend to keep using it.)

Even if an additional district court judge was added (at any time in the next few years), that still leaves at least five empty courtrooms.

So what could possibly be going on in the five or six courtrooms that don’t have a presiding judge?  Where’s the “urgency” for surplus courtrooms?

In 1993, when the Allen Court House opened, then-chief district court judge Kent Washburn said he hoped that the county would get a fourth district court judge.  About a decade later, that finally happened.

But the chances of getting five or six more judges seems to us remote, indeed.  At least within the 30 years that we should hope this building might last.

And, dare we mention it, how about some longer court days and more court days – more non-governmental people’s work week includes Fridays, for instance – to use the existing facility more efficiently, rather than simply adding more space, much of which will be unused.

Unbelievable item No. 5: the need is so “urgent,” the county might need a bond referendum, pronto – Probably because of the astronomical price tag, some commissioners immediately started talking about putting a bond referendum on the ballot.

Inasmuch as bond referendum issues can go before voters only during county-wide elections in even-numbered years, that means the timing factor might cause commissioners to put it on an expedited schedule to get it on the November ballot.

So an “urgent” need that first surfaced in a consultant’s study last week could find its price tag on the ballot this November, less than seven months later.

We think that it is very premature to consider any bond referendum based solely on this study.

The only reason we think the voters might should vote on it this early is so that they can turn it down forcefully.  We don’t think voters are going to want to finance such extravagance, especially since approval would almost certainly carry with it a hefty property tax increase.

Unanswered questions:

· So, what’s to be done with all the empty space in the Historic Court House once all the Clerk of Court’s offices vacate to “consolidate” their operations in either the expanded or new court building?

· And what’s to take the place of all the space in the Civil Courts Building once all the court personnel and courtrooms are moved down the street? Ah, that one’s a little easier to guess: more room for the county bureaucrats whose offices are already in the adjacent (connecting) building.

So not only is this scheme a giant space and money grab for the court system, it also provides a residual benefit for more and/or larger offices for the county’s non-judicial bureaucrats. Perhaps, indeed, that’s part of the original motivation in the first place.

· And what’s to be done, we wonder, with all the space in the existing Family Justice Center on Martin Street, which now houses a number of personnel who will, apparently, be moved to the new judicial Taj Mahal? Probably the same as above, except this time the bureaucratic expansion will undoubtedly be from the nearby Social Services and Health Departments of county government.

· Also, if there is a new courthouse, what’s the name to be? We notice Judge J.B. Allen’s name was nowhere included on any reference to a new standalone building if and when the current building is torn down.

· Also, noticeably missing from the consultant’s drawings was the War Memorial which was built and now stands in front of the Allen Court House. It has the names of all Alamance County residents who died in all wars and conflicts since the War Between the States – and is now the site of annual Memorial Day remembrances. But it’s magically disappeared on the consultant’s drawings.

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