Moving the Courthouse is a Cause for Concern to the Taxpayers
In Washington County, our Circuit Court judges have presided over our justice system from the courthouse on Main Street since 1800. On August 4, our Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to shutter the current courthouse and move operations to the vacant K-mart building. Fortunately, the Commonwealth of Virginia requires a ballot referendum for such a dramatic change, and Washington County voters will have the final say in November.
Before ballots are cast, voters should know two things. First, the process the Board used to arrive at this decision was deeply flawed. Second, there are better and more cost-effective options.
In 2014, the Board formed the Courthouse Long Range Planning Committee to address space, security and accessibility challenges with the current courthouse, particularly parking constraints. They appointed two Supervisors, the Chief Circuit Court Judge, the Circuit Court Clerk, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, and the Abingdon Town Manager. Notably absent from the committee were any downtown business owners or members of the Washington County Bar Association. In fact, the committee included no private citizens at all. By contrast, the 1991 committee, which completed the last set of renovations to the courthouse, included an attorney in private practice and five members of the Washington County commerce community.
The Board then commissioned a Needs Assessment study in 2016. That study contains inflated estimates. For example, it predicted that the Circuit Court will need to accommodate 62 people; however, a closer examination reveals that the number includes 40 jurors. Jury trials are increasingly rare now that the Supreme Court of Virginia encourages alternative dispute resolution. The study also includes dramatic increases in the number of employees working in the courthouse and does not factor in that Washington County will implement electronic filing as soon as the Virginia Supreme Court adopts it, reducing the needs for space and staff. The federal courts have used paperless filing for several years
and Virginia is now running pilot programs in jurisdictions across the state.
It is unclear how the process unfolded in the following two years. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the County admitted that there were no minutes of meetings but noted the Courthouse Long Range Planning Committee reviewed and considered the Needs Assessment study. In addition, according to statements made in town hall meetings, the County Administrator indicated the Town had never participated in these meetings.
In December 2018, the owner of the vacant K-mart building made the property available to the Board, and the Board then apparently negotiated a purchase price of $5,250,000, subject to approval as required by law. The parties to the transaction prepared a final draft of the contract and some other closing paperwork.
The county, or some other interested party, then retained a PR firm, The Corporate Image from Bristol, Tennessee, to conduct town hall meetings. At a cost of nearly $60,000 as reported in the Bristol Herald Courier, the county had the firm create a visual representation of the findings of the 2016 Needs Assessment study. These materials showed three options for the future of the courthouse. The Board
presented these options at its meeting on May 28, 2019.
There were two problems with this approach. First, the Needs Assessment identified four options, not three. The PR firm or the Board chose to leave out one option that would not only save the taxpayers money but also would keep the courthouse on Main Street. Second, the data presented for the public indicated that there was only one choice which would not raise taxes.
In short, whether it intended to or not, the county presented the question to citizens in a format that would influence the outcome. Before going to the voting booth in November, Washington County citizens deserve to know that they do not have to accept this plan that was developed without public input. Other options are available and the three presented are not the only choices to modernize the courthouse. One simple option that was popular in the comments at the town halls was moving the Juvenile Court and the Commonwealth Attorney out to other locations. Their presence inside the building only took place in the last 20 years or so.
Since being informed on May 28 of the proposed change, members of the Washington County Bar Association have hired an engineering firm and proposed six parking options to the Board. Those were made available to the Supervisors before the August 4 meeting, and many citizens at the meeting asked the Board to delay the referendum for at least a year and to consider these and the other alternatives. The Board denied the public this opportunity and proceeded to vote unanimously to move the courthouse.
The Abingdon Town Council, after remaining silent and absent from the courthouse relocation process, promptly followed suit and had the Town Manager give notice of a hearing to rezone the commercial area near Taco Bell, Food City, and gas station to include a courthouse. The rezoning matter is set for August 26 at 5:30 p.m. If the Town denies the petition, the courthouse project cannot go forward.
A courthouse is more than a building. It is a symbol of truth and justice, and it serves the people of our community. There were reasons the founding fathers of our county put that majestic structure on the hill and rebuilt it in 1868 after the attack on it in the war. Decisions about the future of our courthouse deserve public input, careful consideration, and a full and transparent process. On November 5, voters have the chance to demand nothing less.
John M. Lamie