Sunday, May 19, 2024

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County mgr. outlines court expansion; judge, commissioners want more space, taller buildings

Plans for a new mental health crisis and diversion center topped the bill Friday when Alamance County’s board of commissioners convened a special-called meeting to discuss a slate of urgent issues facing the county.

Much of this 6 1/2-hour work session was devoted to the consideration of capital projects that, in some cases, have languished for years on the county’s to-do list.

These big-budget ventures include the aforementioned diversion center, which has been a long-time priority for the local sheriff’s office in light of the burden that mentally ill individuals have placed on the county’s detention facilities.

Also on Friday’s agenda was a centralized emergency services center, which could potentially house operations ranging from the fire marshal’s office to the county’s 9-1-1 center, as well as the proposed redevelopment of the 200-block of West Elm Street in Graham in order to provide more room for the county’s court system.

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During the work session, Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood told the commissioners that they currently have a unique opportunity to knock out some of these projects thanks to an influx of pandemic relief funds and other external sources of revenue.

In addition to the $32.9 million in pandemic relief that the county has directly received from the federal government, Hagood noted that an allocation in the state’s current budget has left the commissioners with another $15 million to spend on a new emergency services center. The county manager also alluded to an anticipated jump in the county’s savings as sales tax receipts have continued to beat expectations for the second year in a row.


Diversion center
With all these additional funds at their disposal, Hagood encouraged the commissioners to take a new look at some of the county’s deferred capital projects. He focused in particular on the mental health diversion center, which the sheriff’s office has sought for the past seven years, and which the commissioners had previously planned to develop with some $2 million they’ve accumulated from various sources.

Last month, Hagood asked the commissioners to set aside $13.2 million from the county’s federal pandemic cache in order to build and operate this proposed facility on land that local developer Chad Porterfield has acquired near Alamance Regional Medical Center. Several of the commissioners initially balked at this proposal, which promised Porterfield $9.2 million to develop the facility and lease it back to the county, with an option to purchase the building several years down the road.

During Friday’s work session, Porterfield was physically present to pitch another potential deal to the commissioners. In lieu of his earlier lease-to-own offer, the developer agreed to let the county purchase the new building outright – at a cost of $13.5 million. Porterfield assured the commissioners that, if they sign off on this deal, the county would be able to occupy the building within the next calendar year.

“At the end of 2022, you could be in there,” he said. “We don’t want to keep kicking the can down the road…So, we have to start somewhere.”

Porterfield’s offer received a warm welcome from John Paisley, Jr. the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, who had also been a vocal proponent of the developer’s earlier pitch. Paisley assured his colleagues that the facility’s price tag of $13.5 million is actually quite reasonable given that it will have to be built to the standards of a hospital.

“This is not a warehouse you plug doors in,” the board’s chairman said. “This has to meet the requirements of a medical facility.”

The developer’s proposal nevertheless failed to impress commissioner Bill Lashley, who felt certain that the county could develop an adequate facility for less than the requested sum.

“I can’t figure out a way to afford your price tag,” he told Porterfield during the work session. “I think your diversion center…is too expensive.”

The commissioners ultimately resolved to take no immediate action on this project and resume their discussion at their next regularly-scheduled meeting on December 20.

They agreed to this postponement after a representative of Vaya, a multi-county consortium that administers publicly-funded mental health services, informed them that the county’s plans for the diversion center had piqued the interest of Cone Health, which planned to present the project to its own board of directors on December 15.


Courthouse expansion
Aside from the proposed diversion center, the commissioners also devoted much of their attention on Friday to the proposed expansion of the local court system’s facilities. They dwelled, in particular, on the prospective construction of a new administrative wing for the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House, which serves as the venue for most of the county’s criminal proceedings.

A two-story version of this annex is currently part of a multiphase plan to redevelop a complex of judicial buildings that the county operates along the 200 block of West Elm Street. This plan, which the county manager originally presented to the commissioners several years ago, also calls for the construction of a second annex on the other side of the Judge J,B. Allen Court House, as well as a couple of two-level parking decks and – eventually – the development of jail “pods” to expand the county’s detention space.

During Friday’s work session, the commissioners received a plea to proceed with the courthouse’s administrative wing from the county’s chief district court judge Brad Allen.

Chief district court judge Brad Allen

Allen, who is also the son of the courthouse’s namesake, assured the commissioners that the building christened after his late father is no longer adequate to meet the ever-expanding needs of the county’s court system.

The county’s chief district court judge went on to enumerate the various positions that would need to be housed in the building’s administrative expansion. He mentioned the 48 posts within in the office of Alamance County’s Clerk of Superior Court, the court system’s 28 bailiffs and five probation officials, the county’s four district court judges with their four supporting staff members; its two superior court judges with their three supporting staff; the 25 people who work for the local D.A.’s office, the county’s two-person guardian ad litem office, and its 12 juvenile court employees.

“In total,” he prorated, “there’s 126 people who need offices…and also our judicial district is either first or second in the state in needing a fifth district court judge.”

Allen added that, in order to ensure there is sufficient space for all of these people, the county ought to consider building the new administrative annex higher than two stories.

The judge’s suggestion seemed to strike a chord with several members of the county’s governing board, including its chairman, who confirmed as much during the work session.

“I think it’s very, very foolish to build a two-story addition,” Paisley told his fellow commissioners. “I think we’re being very short-sighted [to have two-stories on the drawing board].”

The commissioners took no action on the proposed courthouse expansion during the work session nor on any of the other capital projects they had discussed.

See other coverage of the commissioners’ work session, primarily focused on consideration of raises for three departments:

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