Monday, July 22, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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County commissioners continue to wrestle with plans for courthouse expansion – and where money for it should come from

The members of Alamance County’s board of commissioners continue to keep their options open as they grapple with a multimillion-dollar plan to renovate and expand the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House in Graham.

Despite pressure from some quarters to rein in the scope of this project, or to forswear a funding strategy that relies on revenue currently earmarked for the local school system, the county’s governing board has yet to rule anything in, or out, when it comes to this titanic endeavor.

In fact, the only point on which the commissioners seem resolute at the moment is their determination not to make any decisions.

It was this sense of stasis that won out on Monday when the commissioners held their latest discussion about the project, which calls for the wholesale renovation and multi-story expansion of the 30-year-old criminal courts venue so it can eventually house most of the local court system’s functions.

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By the end of that morning’s colloquy, the board’s members were not only staring at the same $67 million venture that the county manager had pitched to them last month; they had actually doubled their dilemma by having the manager resurrect a $75 million plan that envisions a four-story addition rather than the three-story option she had presented to them in February.

The commissioners had also made no headway on pinning down how to pay for this project.

On paper at least they were still kicking around the same constellation of proposals that were before them last month – each of which calls for a varying amount of funds from the county’s own savings as well as a bank loan to cover the rest of the tab. Nor had the commissioners decided how they would pay off the loan – which could involve either a property tax hike when the first loan payments come due; an earlier, albeit lower, tax increase to be implemented in 2024; or, alternately, the diversion of revenue that’s currently slated to go into a capital reserve fund which the county maintains for the Alamance-Burlington school system.

During Monday’s discussion, Alamance County’s manager Heidi York encouraged the commissioners to select their preferred options from among the smorgasbord of proposals currently before them. The commissioners also heard from a handful of residents who, in some cases, urged them to pare back the scale of the courthouse upgrade and, in others, to formally abandon the payment option that would involve the school system’s reserves.

The commissioners, for their part, weren’t much of a rush to make a decision that morning.

The board’s consensus was perhaps best summed up on Monday by commissioner Craig Turner, who argued that he and his colleagues have a duty to proceed in this matter with deliberation and care.

“There was a comment here this morning that a lot of people are just now realizing we’re talking about a courthouse expansion,” Turner said as he recalled a remark from one of the residents who spoke up during the board’s designated public comment period. “Of course, we were talking about this for more than a year, but we haven’t been ready to take a vote…I think there’s time to take a deliberate pace and make sure everybody is up to speed.”
In the interest of thoroughness, Turner asked the county manager to obtain some space allocations given the likelihood that the General Assembly will allot a fifth district court judge to Alamance County.

Meanwhile, commissioner Bill Lashley proposed a brief moratorium on any decision until the commissioners have adjusted the county’s property tax rate to offset the bump that the local tax base has received from the county’s recent property tax revaluation. Lashley observed that all of the current calculations for the project’s proposed payment options are based, to one degree or another, on the soon-to-be obsolete value of a single penny on the property tax rate.

“We don’t know what the new rate will be,” the commissioner added. “So, I made a comment to one of my friends that I wish we could push this courthouse off for another three months.”

In the meantime, the commissioners heard from a number of residents who insisted that they could make some decisions much sooner to at least rule out some of the options that are presently still on the table.

Tommy Bruton

“Nobody supports law enforcement as much as I do, but building this new courthouse for the judges – I’m highly against that…I’ve had a lot of police officers tell me the judges aren’t there on Fridays a lot of times . . . Many lawyers have told me they’ve had to go to a judge’s house to get something signed.”

– Tommy Bruton

Among those who addressed the commissioners on Monday was Tommy Bruton of Graham, who argued that scale of the proposed courthouse expansion is way out of proportion to the local court system’s actual needs.

“Nobody supports law enforcement as much as I do,” Bruton declared. “But building this new courthouse for the judges – I’m highly against that…I’ve had a lot of police officers tell me the judges aren’t there on Fridays a lot of times…Many lawyers have told me they’ve had to go to a judge’s house to get something signed.”

Stuart Smith

“We still have many needs in ABSS. I hope we do not deduct any or all of what’s been proposed from the ABSS capital reserves.”

– Stuart Smith

Meanwhile, area resident Stuart Smith called on the commissioners to restrain themselves from dipping into the school system’s reserves to pay for this project.

“We still have many needs in ABSS,” Smith opined during Monday’s public comment period. “I hope we do not deduct any or all of what’s been proposed from the ABSS capital reserves.”

Tanya Kline

“Making the protection of the ABSS capital reserve funds crucial for current and future capital needs is very important. Please vote against any proposal that takes money away from ABSS.”

– Tanya Kline

“Making the protection of the ABSS capital reserve funds crucial for current and future capital needs is very important,” agreed Tanya Kline of Gibsonville. “Please vote against any proposal that takes money away from ABSS.”

Anthony Pierce

“Last year, we had a surplus of tax dollars due to an increase of revenue compared to what was projected. Those excess dollars could’ve been used for this project [court expansion]. Instead, the board decided to decrease the property taxes by a very small percentage.

– Anthony Pierce

Meanwhile, Anthony Pierce, who made waged an unsuccessful bid to get on the board of commissioners in 2022, blamed the board’s present conundrum on a property tax cut that the board’s all-Republican membership implemented before voters went to the polls that fall.

“Last year, we had a surplus of tax dollars due to an increase of revenue compared to what was projected,” recalled Pierce, who was the only Democrat to run for the board of commissioners that year. “Those excess dollars could’ve been used for this project. Instead, the board decided to decrease the property taxes by a very small percentage.

“We now face a huge dilemma,” the one-time candidate added. “You either have to consider raising taxes above what you lowered it last year…But I’m sure we can all agree that this should not be done or take priority over our kids and our teachers and staff [at ABSS]…I think you should take ABSS off the table so you can send the message across the county that this board really supports the school system.”

The sanctity of the school system’s reserves also seemed obvious to commissioner Pam Thompson, who had served on the Alamance-Burlington school board prior to her elevation to the board of commissioners in 2020. Thompson went on to recount how, during her time on the school board, she and her colleagues struggled to squeeze the school system’s most pressing capital needs into a $150 million bond package that area voters ultimately approved in 2018.

“ABSS is far from getting their stuff fixed, and it amazed me how all that had to be voted on,” she added. “I’m thinking would we have the support of the community if we put this courthouse money on the ballot and voted on it as a county…That’s how I feel about it, and I’m not going to change my mind about this courthouse.”


Commissioners’ reactions

County commissioner Pam Thompson

“ABSS is far from getting their stuff fixed, and it amazed me how all that had to be voted on. I’m thinking would we have the support of the community if we put this courthouse money on the ballot and voted on it as a county . . . That’s how I feel about it, and I’m not going to change my mind about this courthouse.”

– County commissioner Pam Thompson

County commissioner Bill Lashley

“We have folks who want us to give all that money to the schools even though it was never theirs to start with. And if [the schools] have roofs that are leaking that’s an indictment of the [school system’s] maintenance team because that doesn’t go bad in a day.”

– County commissioner Bill Lashley

County commissioner Craig Turner

“We’re not talking about taking money out of ABSS’ capital reserve fund. We’re talking about reallocating future revenue streams that were designed years ago based on assumptions – some of which have changed.  Some people might say that all of that money should be in there. But it is growing quicker than it was designed to do.”

– county commissioner craig turner


In response to Thompson’s assertion, Lashley pointed out that the money flowing into the school system’s capital reserves comes in part from the 8-cent property tax increase which a previous board of commissioners approved to pay off the debt on the school system’s $150 million bond package as well as another $39.6 million in bonds that the local electorate passed on behalf of Alamance Community College.

“We have folks who want us to give all that money to the schools even though it was never theirs to start with,” he lamented. “And if [the schools] have roofs that are leaking that’s an indictment of the [school system’s] maintenance team because that doesn’t go bad in a day.”

York went on to confirm that the funds going into the school system’s capital reserves includes about $5.64 million a year from the aforementioned 8-cent tax hike that has proven unnecessary to pay off the school system’s bonds due to the advantageous interest rates which the county has obtained from the bond market. York also stressed that the payment proposal before the commissioners wouldn’t touch the $3.3 million a year that the county agreed to allocate for the school system’s ongoing maintenance needs when it took over the school system’s capital reserves.

The county manager’s observations were later reiterated by Turner as he defended the potential diversion of the revenue replenishing the school system’s capital reserves to pay for the courthouse expansion.

“We’re not talking about taking money out of ABSS’ capital reserve fund. We’re talking about reallocating future revenue streams that were designed years ago based on assumptions – some of which have changed,” the commissioner said. “Some people might say that all of that money should be in there. But it is growing quicker than it was designed to do.”

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