Lea, Picerno Debate Building Locations
One point of agreement is clear: The need for additional county buildings is there.
County Commissioners' Chairman Nick Picerno and Commissioner Tim Lea just don't agree on a solution.
"There ain't no right answer," said Picerno, a comment illustrating that there was more laughter than rancor expressed Tuesday at a meeting of the League of Women Voters.
The league had asked the two Commissioners to present their opposing views on how to handle the placement of multi-million-dollar buildings to meet the growing need for jail beds, courts facilities and government offices.
The two men made it clear that they have been friends from youth and insisted that they agree on many more issues than it appears from published reports.
Lea, who is in his second term on the board, contends that the office building should be constructed at the Carriage Oaks Complex, property already owned by the county. That would leave plenty of room on the 21-acre tract in downtown Carthage for both the detention center-public safety complex and a new courts facility.
Picerno agrees that the county needs the office building and the jail-public safety complex and that the county has pressing needs for additional space for the courts. But he thinks the court needs can be met by skillful renovation of the existing Courts Facility, which is across the street from the present jail.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," Lea said of the county's space needs.
Lea recalled that when the jail was enlarged in the 1990s, county leaders thought it would be adequate for future needs.
"Who would have believed we would have outgrown these facilities?" he asked. "But we did."
The present jail has a capacity of 110 inmates, but a recent report indicated that 160 inmates were being housed on one particular night. The number would have climbed to 225 if the total had included the prisoners on house arrest and held in check by electronic ankle bracelets.
The detention center-public safety complex has been designed for an initial bed count of 260. That includes 192 new beds plus 68 beds from the existing jail. The new building is being designed to abut the existing jail and retain some of its facilities. However, the structure is being designed for future expansion in mind -- to accommodate as many as 500 to 600 inmates.
And Lea threw out the possibility that the detention center could eventually be enlarged to house as many as 850 inmates, a total that has not been mentioned in previous public discussion.
He did not predict that the facility would ever be that large but did mention "a potential bed count with maximum build-out" of 700 to 850 beds.
Space Freed for Courts
Picerno agreed that the court facility needs are very real but said about 8,000 square feet will be freed when the Sheriff's Department is moved from the basement of the existing building into the new public safety building.
He also displayed a calendar showing the days in which courtrooms are not in use in the Courts Facility.
He said the building could be renovated to provide additional smaller courtrooms and to provide additional space for the clerk of court. That proposal includes provision for secure storage space for trial evidence and for historic documents.
But Lea argued that because courtrooms are empty some days, it doesn't mean they are not needed. He pointed out that the classrooms are needed, even if not in use all the time.
Picerno said that by the time he came on the board last year, the county property issue was "in the middle of the show." Picerno then quoted from the unsealed minutes of a series of closed board meetings in 2007 when the commissioners were negotiating the purchase of land for the jail expansion/public safety complex and a new office building.
Picerno observed that these minutes mention the need for a public safety building, an office building and jail expansion, but nothing is said about the need for court facility space.
The board had already purchased the 21-acre tract from Johnny Grimm and had hired architects to design the site and the buildings when Picerno learned of the court space needs.
Picerno said it appeared that everyone thought the county's needs were being addressed. Then the committee, which included both Picerno and Lea, went on a tour of the Courts Facility and saw critical needs in the clerk of court offices and elsewhere in the court system.
"I wondered why it was coming up now as an issue," Picerno said. "It was not making sense. Why all of a sudden was it showing up on the radar?"
Lea recalled that both Catherine Graham, former clerk of court, and Superior Court Judge James Webb had brought up the subject to the commissioners serving on a previous board but the seriousness of the issue somehow did not register. At the time, Graham and Webb had mentioned the need to build any larger or newer court facility in close vicinity to the jail.
Commissioner Cindy Morgan joined Lea and Picerno on a tour of the Carriage Oaks property during the period when a special committee was studying the space needs of the courts.
The purpose of the tour was to determine the suitability of the site for the office building, a change that would leave space on the downtown site for a larger courts facility.
Picerno, along with Commissioners Jimmy Melton and Larry Caddell, voted against the Carriage Oaks site. Lea and Morgan had favored Carriage Oaks for the office building.
"The Carriage Oaks property just does not give us the flexibility we need," Picerno said. "I wish we could do it because it would solve a lot of problems. If someone comes up with a better solution, I'll vote for it."
In closing his presentation, Picerno praised his four fellow commissioners as good people doing the best they can to serve the interest of the taxpayers.
"There is no hidden agenda. There is no hidden anything," Picerno said.
Opposed Purchase Price
Lea illustrated his talk with a PowerPoint presentation to review the dimensions and design of the buildings designated for the Grimm property, the 21 acres stretching from Dowd Street to McNeill Street.
Lea, who voted against the purchase, reported that the acreage carried a tax value of $659,870 but was appraised by Village Appraisers at between $924,842 and $1.2 million. Village Appraisers based their estimate on future use of the property. The county bought the land for $1.5 million
In opposing the purchase, Lea argued that he had no problem with the location, just the price. He said a 21-acre site adjacent to the Board of Elections building was also available for $210,000, or $10,000 per acre. By contrast, the price for the Grimm property came to $71,429 an acre.
"That would have been a great opportunity," Lea said of the 21 acres available for $210,000.
Six of the 21 acres in downtown Carthage cannot be used for building purposes because they contain wetlands. Lea added that the county has since learned that artesian wells are located on the site and will require capping before the property can be developed.
The commissioners have followed up on only one of three recommendations made by a study committee headed by Webb to consider court space needs. They voted unanimously at a Nov. 16 meeting to award a contract for a private consultant to conduct an analysis of court facility space needs.
The committee had also recommended that the county delay a decision on placement of the office building until the court space issue is resolved. It also asked the county to build any new court facility in the vicinity of the jail.
Parking is a related issue although a familiar one for anyone working or visiting offices or buildings in downtown Carthage. Lea estimated that almost 1,000 parking spaces will be needed once all the new buildings are occupied. The prospect of razing other county buildings to make more parking lots has been mentioned but is not a popular idea, he said.
Although the size sounds big, Picerno said there is no assurance that the county will ever be required to enlarge the jail to the potential build-out size. He assured everyone that the vast majority of the inmates are either awaiting trial or are serving sentences for nonviolent misdemeanors.
In response to a question from a member of the audience, the commissioners deferred to District Attorney Maureen Krueger, who advised that the detention center would not accept federal or state inmates unless the county has a contract with federal or state government. At present, Moore County has no such contract.
However, both men played down their differences and those of other board members.
"We are really not all that different," Picerno said. "We just have a different vision."
Contact Florence Gilkeson at (910) 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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