One set of outlays in North Carolina’s new budget seems to have posed a bit of a conundrum for the county’s elected officials, who must now marshal their own resources to ensure that the state’s generosity isn’t completely wasted on them.
These problematic line items concern a number of new state-funded positions that officials within the local court system have persistently sought to deal with a backlog of both civil and criminal cases. These posts include a public defender to serve as a complement to the local district attorney as well as fifth district court judge who will soon join the four jurists who presently preside over the lower echelon of the local courts system.
According to State senator Amy Scott Galey, whose district includes Alamance as well as a portion of Randolph, this newly-approved judgeship was awarded based largely on the hardships that the county’s four current district court judges have had to endure.
“The [N.C.] Administrative Office of the Courts has a work load formula to determine where additional staff is need,” Galey went on to explain in an interview with The Alamance News earlier this week. “The workload formula for Alamance County showed that we were the first in the state in needing a new district court judge, which means that we got the district court judge based on case volume and workload.”
Galey added that the new budget provides for this new judge to be elected in 2024 – with no provision for an appointment ahead of next fall’s general election.
Meanwhile, the budget demands a swifter timetable for the court system’s other new post – a public defender who, in the future, will represent almost all of the county’s criminal suspects who cannot afford their own legal counsel.
Under the new budget, the local court system is due to receive $798,710 for what remains of this fiscal year to cover the salary and benefits of the public defender and his staff, who are to include six lower-ranking attorneys and a support staff of four people. Galey noted that the budget has an effective date of October 1, 2023 for the public defender’s position – and of January 1, 2024 for the other ten posts that the General Assembly has authorized.
Although it may seem like the state has left very little time for the local courts system to get everything ready for this influx of new hires, the truth is somewhat more complicated according to Tom Lambeth, the county’s senior resident superior court judge.
By virtue of his position, Lambeth will ultimately be tasked with appointing the new public defender, although he notes that this selection will inevitably occur well after the budget’s effective date of October 1.
“The local bar must first vote [on this post] and submit two or three names to the senior resident superior court judge,” he explained in an interview Tuesday. “The second step is for the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts must submit an additional name [to the senior resident superior court judge] after consulting with the director of the [state’s] Indigent Defense Services. Then, the chief public defender is appointed for a four year term and the same process is followed up at the end of each term.”
Lambeth added that, according to his contacts in Indigent Defense Services, the courts system could have the new public defender appointed and ready for action within the next six months or so.
“Based on their latest experience,” he said, “I’m hopeful that we can have the public defender’s office open and hearing cases in the late winter or early spring of next year.”
The county, for its part, is statutorily obligated to provide office space for these incoming officials and any other facilities they’ll need to discharge their duties. In 2021, the county’s board of commissioners began to prepare for their prospective arrivals by roughing out plans for a multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion of the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr., Court House in Graham. But the commissioners eventually set this project aside due to its budget-busting price – which initially rang up at nearly $100 million and later came down to $67 million after months of “right-sizing” and cost-cutting.
In the short-term, however, the commissioners are exploring other, less costly alternatives for both the fifth district court judge and the public defender with his accompanying staff.
John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, believes that the county may have had a stroke of luck when it comes to the public defender’s new digs thanks to the recent relocation of the county’s elections office.
Last month, the elections office formally cleared out of its traditional home at the corner of Maple and Pine streets in favor of a repurposed bank building that the county has renovated along South Main Street in Graham. Paisley observed that this recent move has left the county with a reasonably habitable building within easy reach of the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House as well as Alamance County’s detention center.
“Right now,” he told The Alamance News, “I’m talking to county staff and other commissioners about that old board of elections building. It does have plumbing problems – occasionally there are overflows, and the plumbing fixtures are in the concrete floor, so we will have to cut out those fixtures and replace the plumbing inside the building.”
Paisley’s impression of the former elections office as a bit of a fixer upper is entirely borne out by Alamance County’s manager Heidi York.
“I just walked the building yesterday evening,” she recalled Wednesday morning, “and there will be some renovations needed. We were already planning to deal with sewer under the building and the roof, and there will also be some interior renovations needed before we can use that building to house the public defender.”
Meanwhile, Paisley said that he thinks the county can renovate the old elections office using revenue that’s already earmarked for the public defender’s office in the county’s current annual budget. He insisted that this overhaul shouldn’t require much, if any, revenue from the county’s capital reserves, which include $10 million that has been set aside for the J.B. Allen building’s proposed renovation and expansion.
Paisley also insists that the county can probably find office space for a fifth district court judge without having to break ground on a multimillion-dollar facility. He noted that there’s currently unused space in an old agricultural extension building at the corner of Maple and Elm Streets as well as some potential third floor accommodations in Alamance County’s historic courthouse.
Even so, Paisley confessed that the county will eventually need to invest some substantial coin into a new or expanded facility – and preferably one that will centralize the local court system’s rather dispersed accommodations.
“In my career as an attorney, I’ve worked in a lot of courtrooms all over the country,” he added, “and Alamance County is one of the few places where if you say that you’ve put a case on the docket to another attorney, the other attorney has no idea where to go.”
In any event, the challenges which the county currently faces didn’t exactly drop out of nowhere when the General Assembly finally signed off on the state’s new spending plan on Friday. To Lambeth, this long-overdue moment was simply the starting gun for a process that would have to take place one way or another.
“It been long-drawn out process, and now that the state budget is passed, we have some decisions to make.”