After three space needs studies, two grand jury reports and the threat of a court order, the county is now locked on a course to build a new courthouse.
The Moore County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously last week to award a contract to Moseley Architects of Raleigh.
It will take about a year to complete the design work and then at least another year or more to build it. The current facility, which opened in 1979, has been deemed a “serious” security threat by those grand jury reports.
The most recent space needs study, done by a consulting firm in the summer of 2017, projected that a 180,000-square-foot facility is needed to meet current and future demands, with an estimated cost of $38 million — roughly $10 million to $13 million more than the available funding identified by county officials without a significant property tax increase.
Working with its financial adviser, Davenport and Co., the county determined it could cover about $25 million in debt for a courthouse. Most of that would come from using the savings from paying down the debt on the $32.1 million Rick Rhyne Public Safety Center and jail.
The county financed that project through bonds, which did not require voter approval.
While the commissioners have taken some heat for not seeking a referendum to build a new courthouse, they say they have no choice on the matter.
Catherine Graham, who chairs both the Courthouse Advisory Ccommittee and the Board of Commissioners, said in an earlier meeting that “not many people want a jail or a courthouse.”
“We are up against a high court’s decision,” she said then.
A previous board made a commitment in 2016 to Emergency Superior Court Judge Michael Beale that the county would have a new courthouse built within five years. He has been assigned by the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court to monitor the county’s progress in addressing the needs of the judicial system.
County Manager Wayne Vest told the commissioners earlier this year that building a $38 million facility would require at least a 1- to 1.3-cent property tax increase by 2021. Bringing the cost down to $25 million would require about a half-cent tax increase.
He said his projections factor in expected growth in the tax base, which he said appears to be healthy in the coming years.
One of the ways the county hopes to reduce the cost is by incorporating use of the existing Courts Facility in Carthage into a judicial complex. The county plans to build the new courthouse on land adjoining the public safety center and jail, and the two could be connected through a secure skybridge.
The existing courthouse has about 47,000 square feet, and with the space in the Currie Building for the District Attorney offices, that brings the total to more than 70,000 square feet.
Capital Projects Director Rick Smith told the commissioners earlier this year that the consulting firm’s finding on the size of a courthouse is not set. He said one of the things the county wants its architectural firm to do is also look at “the best use of existing space and buildings and tie it into new space.”
He said the county provided architectural firms that bid on the contract with a letter from Beale that outlines his concerns and the needs for the court system.
Beale has the power to seek an order forcing construction, but has told the previous and current Board of Commissioners that he would prefer it be done through proper planning.
Smith said county officials met with the head of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts to get a better understanding about future needs of the state court system, noting the county is not convinced the courthouse needs to be as big as the consultant recommended, He would like architects to offer their views.
Smith said there is room to make reductions in what the consulting firm proposed. Its study shows seven courtrooms, each with seating capacity of 250. He said the county may not need that many courtrooms and that some could be smaller.
All of that will factor into the final estimated cost when the construction documents are completed and ready to be put out for bid.
The commissioners decided in July 2017 not to include offices for probation and parole in the new courthouse, mainly because of security concerns, since those offices are open after normal business hours. Graham said that decision would help reduce the size of the building and the costs.
That drew a strong rebuke from Chief Resident Superior Court Judge James Webb and the county’s previous consultant, Solutions for Local Government, who argued that having those offices in the building would improve efficiency, since they are integral to the court system and that having them there would actually improve security because parole officers are armed.
The commissioners declined to revisit that question before seeking proposals from architectural firms.
Smith told the commissioners last week that the fees for the architectural firm are based on the actual cost of the work, which are different for new construction and renovations. He said if the new construction costs $30 million and another $3 million in renovations are made to existing facilities, the total fee would be $2.87 million.
“That is not to say that is what it will cost,” Graham cautioned.
The county has been under increasing pressure from the judicial system for more than five years to build a new courthouse.
The most recent grand jury report done in December 2015 said the current facility — built in 1979 under threat of a court order — is not adequate to meet the current or future needs of the court system. It said the facility is at maximum capacity, and that is “antiquated and the original design and modifications are insufficient to accommodate the future capacity and increasing requirements of the court.”
The inspection was conducted by the grand jury at Webb’s request. He noted that two previous outside studies done in 2010 and 2012 show the need for a new courthouse. A Moore County grand jury also reached similar conclusions about deficiencies and security issues in a December 2013 report.
“The Moore Courthouse is significantly lacking in security and previously noted features to current standards that demonstrate a state of disrepair,” the report concludes. “It is the grand jury’s opinion that, in addition to security and circulation, the facility has severe functional and physical deficiencies that could be potentially disastrous.
“As a grand jury, we conclude that the conditions of the building appear to be potentially hazardous. Specifically, where fire systems are inadequate, defendants walk down public hallways to get to courtrooms, overcrowded common areas and insufficient storage and office space.”
The county completed $1.4 million in renovations to the existing Courts Facility in early 2016 in effort to buy more time to come up with a plan for a new courthouse. Court officials said that with the continuing increases in criminal cases and other business that goes on there — wills and estates, adoptions and juvenile proceedings among them — it cannot be put off any longer.
Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.