Monday, May 20, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
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Does the county really need this much courthouse?


Are we the only ones who think county officials need to slow the “new courthouse” train at least a little bit?

County bureaucrats, led by county manager Heidi York, are pushing hard for a commitment to a hugely expensive new court complex.

As is all too typical in government, York lays out supposed alternatives that amount to little more than picking between tweedle dee vs. tweedle dum.

Are the commissioners willing to spend $66 million, $67 million, or perhaps $75 million on a new court building, she pressed them to decide last week.

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Should the building have a fourth story?  Or should it have the structural foundation that will allow a future fourth story?

Should the commissioners raid from a pot of money they’ve set aside mostly for school construction funding, but which has grown more than anticipated and thus has some excess funds that could be diverted to pay for new court facilities?

These are all issues that will need to be decided.

But this stampede to decide now is a purely manufactured crisis.

There is no urgency – neither to decide the size of a new building, nor to obligate the county to how it will be funded.

All work is months and years away.

Yet the commissioners seemed almost like kindergarten or elementary school children timidly asking the county manager if they could put off making a decision for two weeks.

Excuse us, what’s wrong with this picture?

The commissioners are the ones who are supposed to be in charge. Not bowing to the whims or preferences of the county’s top bureaucrat. They don’t need a scolding from the county manager.

They can take as long as they’d like.  The bureaucrats can wait.

We think the county manager’s urgency is, in all probability, in order to camouflage the future tax rate, to be set later this spring.  We firmly believe that county officials, if not some commissioners themselves, think they can “accommodate” a little extra cash (from property owners) flowing into the county’s coffers.  Some will say the new rate is “revenue neutral” – since all the commissioners claim to be dedicated to that proposition – but the actual impact, we predict, will be more revenue for the county to spend.

The more fundamental question is: does Alamance County need this much additional court space?

For instance, why in the world would the county need room for 12 courtrooms when there are only six judges.  Even if the county is allocated a fifth district court judge in this year’s state budget – an optimism local officials voice as one more reason to “hurry up” the decision on adding court space – that’s still five more courtrooms than the county can possibly use for at least decades to come.

This newspaper’s publisher was given a “tour,” of sorts a few months back, ostensibly to demonstrate the great need for more court space.  It was interesting all right, especially to note that of the seven courtrooms even now available for trials, administrative work, etc., only one was being used on the Thursday afternoon of the tour.

We don’t mean to disparage court officials, but we’re just not convinced that a more efficient use of current space wouldn’t reduce the size of any  “expansion” of a facility that opened in 1993.

The project also needs what officials generally term “value engineering,” i.e., a reassessment of how features, and the consequent expenses, can be trimmed to what is vitally necessary – rather than merely a compilation of everyone’s “wish list.”

Oh, also very much omitted, so far, from most of the discussion is the little-noticed fact that the vacated court spaces (that will be moved to the new building) will, of course, be filled by. . . you guessed it, more county bureaucrats.

Part of the two-step process – although the bureaucratic benefit is not discussed much openly – is that the courts are to get more space in a new building so that county government can expand into the rest of the building they now share with district courtrooms and court personnel.

Everybody gets something.

Courts and bureaucrats get more space.

Oh yeah, taxpayers get something all right: the bill – and decades of paying taxes to finance the expansion – and the county’s new digs, as well.

While court officials go out of their way to assure that their new digs won’t be a localized Taj Mahal, it does seem to us to be highly questionable whether so much more space is actually necessary, or whether it’s simply every government officials’ consuming desire for more.

Also highly exaggerated, in our judgment, is one of the rationales that court officials insist is behind their desire for a larger court facility: security.

In a building where prisoners from the jail are both shackled (usually hands and feet) and always escorted by armed deputies, it seems a real stretch to consider that judges, clerks, or any other court personnel are in serious danger by being in close proximity – ooh, they might pass each other in the back hallway, as though that presents a legitimate threat to their safety.

Passage through a metal detector is required for the general public to enter the building, so it seems to us some of the “security” concerns are pretty far-fetched.

Granted, there are crazy people here and elsewhere who may be able to find ways around even the best security measures, but to the extent officials can plan to prevent the most common or likely threats, they have done so.

And, importantly, there is not one single example of an actual security threat incident toward any judge, any assistant district attorney, any courtroom clerk – or anyone else in the court buildings.

Among the silliest, nonsensical  supposed “security” issues is one we’ve heard to be in the works: the judges wanting a separate, private parking area.

Keep in mind, this is a grand total of six people (four district court and two superior court judges).

[Editorial continues below photos.]

Even now, judges are also escorted by deputies to and from their cars in the parking lot.

But here’s a novel idea that won’t cost anything:

How about taking down the signs that identify where the judges are parking (see photo top above), assign them a different “reserved” spot (like dozens of other county and court personnel have, simply by number, in the same parking lot, see above middle), and put their spaces closer to the court building, rather than at the absolute farthest distance from the court building (as some of them are now, see lower photo, above).

All in all, this whole concept needs a lot more thought than county officials have put in it lately.

Somehow, we’re all supposed to be so grateful that they didn’t pursue the $99 million expansion first proposed last year – which really was a Taj Mahal – in favor of this somewhat skinnier extravagance.

Only in government would spending $66 million to $75 million be considered a “bargain.”

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