County's Court Needs 'Urgent,' Board Told
Moore County's court facility needs are "serious and urgent," and the county should get started soon on plans to correct those problems.
That's the message contained in a special study report presented to the Board of Commission-ers Monday night.
The private consultant who prepared the study also estimated that it would cost $21,706,200 to build a 116,700-square-foot building to accommodate the county's needs, plus the cost of providing sufficient parking space.
"We are in dire condition right now," said District Court Judge Jayrene Maness, a member of the Courthouse Facilities Advisory Committee.
Maness renewed the committee's request that the commissioners hold off on plans for constructing a county office building until the best location for a new courts facility can be determined.
Although the board voted unanimously to accept the report, no action was taken on the consultant's findings or the committee request.
The independent study by Steve Allen, president of Solutions for Local Government Inc., was contracted by the Board of Commissioners at the request of the committee, headed by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James Webb. He was unable to attend the Monday meeting because he was tied up with a lengthy trial in Forsyth County.
Maness said the existing courts facilities would be strained in coming weeks, with at least three major and protracted jury trials.
"This will be a tremendous challenge," Maness said.
Howard Warren, a retired architect and committee member, told the commissioners that they should look at the Grimm tract in downtown Carthage in considering court space needs. The Grimm property, which abuts the existing jail, is the 21-acre tract purchased by the county almost three years ago for location of a new and enlarged jail and public safety building and for a county administration office building.
"You need to look at it very carefully," Warren said of the property, purchased for $1.5 million.
At one time, the commissioners did consider a different location for the office building. They looked at a corner of the Carriage Oaks property, also owned by the county, about a mile from downtown Carthage and the historic courthouse.
They later voted 3-2 to continue with plans to place both the jail/public safety complex and the office building on the Grimm tract, which is adjacent to the existing jail and across the street from the Courts Facility.
The committee has strongly recommended that any new court building be located near the new detention center/public safety complex. However, the Grimm property, which includes a wetlands area, is not considered large enough to accommodate three such large structures, plus parking spaces.
'Fixing Old Mistakes'
Allen did not list specific recommendations, but he offered a series of ideas, such as a multi-level parking deck, use of nearby county-owned property and razing the existing jail rather than incorporating 68 beds from the old jail into the new complex.
"Fixing old mistakes is never easy," Allen said in pointing to serious deficiencies in the Courts Facility as it was designed more than 32 years ago.
Among the problems is a deficit of 27,401 square feet needed to meet needs for courtrooms, offices, storage, conference rooms and related facilities.
Illustrations of the building highlighted problems with placement of jury boxes, a lack of security in the district attorney's quarters in rented property across the street and a lack of privacy in the probation/parole offices. He also illustrated a serious problem with traffic patterns where paths are crossed by judges, jurors, attorneys, defendants, inmates and the public.
"No one would suggest public seating directly behind the jury box," Allen said, pointing to the location of spectator seating in an area immediately behind the jury box in the major courtrooms.
By 2030, court space needs are projected at 97,250 square feet. The projections were based on recent population growth and the increase in the number of cases in the Moore County courts through the years. In 2000, the cases totaled 25,899, but by 2009 the number had climbed to 31,841.
Allen pointed out that 43 percent of the filings are non-criminal cases, involving such things as estates, divorces and custody matters. He estimated that more than 60,000 individuals are affected by the courts, a figure that does not include courthouse employees, jurors and law enforcement personnel.
Kent Smith, a committee member representing the Moore County Bar, later emphasized that point and indicated that what happens in the courts facility has an impact on all residents.
Allen told the board that his estimate of a new building's cost reflects a decrease of $55 per square foot from one a couple of years ago, a result of economic conditions.
He predicted that the building market situation will hold for another year at least but declined to predict beyond that.
In initiating the study, Allen looked into conditions leading to the need for larger updated facilities for the courts. The county's population was 50,505 in 1980, but is projected at 88,468 thirty years later.
Allen cited a series of changes in legislation and social issues since 1978, when the present building was first occupied.
New laws, larger case files, the use of computers and other newer technology, an increase in litigation and changing demographics were mentioned. Alternative means of resolving disputes are moving some cases from courtroom to conference room or private office.
Passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act has changed needs, as has media attention on increasing violence in courtrooms. He also cited changes following the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy.
The existing facility has 41,102 square feet of usable space, of which 12,057 is in the basement, used by the sheriff's department and the clerk of court.
One option considered, but more or less rejected, is the concept of an addition and renovation of the existing facility.
A significant obstacle to that option is the fact that "court cannot simply be shut down for any period of time," Allen said.
In addition to the Courts Facility, the historic courthouse and the jail, the county owns several other pieces of property in downtown Carthage, such as the Central Services building now occupied by Financial Services, the public library, and the Currie Building housing public safety and Sandhills Community Action Program offices, along with several parking lots of differing sizes.
Both Board Chairman Tim Lea and Commissioner Nick Picerno serve on the committee.
The commissioners thanked Allen for his report and commended the committee for its hard work, then agreed to accept the report without taking immediate action.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at (910) 693-2479 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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