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Residents continue to criticise new judicial center project

The Westmoreland Supervisors instructed a project architect to put the county’s new judicial center project out for bids, but criticism of the project’s scope remains heated despite the Dec. 12 action of the Board.

Even a square footage reduction of just under 3,000 square feet failed to make the new judicial center attractive to unhappy residents. A special Board of Supervisors

meeting on Dec. 7 resulted in the Board’s decision to dispense with architect Rick Funk’s previously proposed 3-story structure.

A two-story complex of 39,834 square feet instead will serve judicial and law enforcement needs. The structure will be sited immediately adjacent to the George D. English Building and county government offices will remain in the English Building, with additional space to accommodate future needs. The architect delivered assurances that his firm will put out the completed bids package within 90 days of the Westmoreland Board’s Dec. 12 decision.

Seconds after the Supervisors gave their architect the authorization to proceed, businessman and county resident Kennon Morris described the action as “abhorrent.”
“You are prepared to spend ten or twelve million dollars of our tax money,” Morris commented, “and you are yet to have an advertised public hearing. It’s just like the way you handled the decision with O’Gara and the sewers and everything else. I find it pretty abhorrent and I think a lot of other citizens feel the same way, too.”

The Supervisors did not immediately respond.

Later that evening the Board entertained the agenda’s public comment segment and Morris once again addressed the subject of the new judicial center.

“You voted tonight to go ahead and build the new Westmoreland courthouse but you have yet to hold a public hearing, “ Morris related.

“You told us tonight you plan to have an advertised public hearing after the bids are returned, when you’re ready to proceed with the project’s financing. What you told us is you will have the public hearing after the fact, when there’s no chance for the people to present their questions.

“I’ll tell you again. The way you did this is the same as the way you took care of your business with O’Gara and the sewer. The people don’t know if it’s the County Administrator or this Board that’s at fault, but when you met last Wednesday to discuss this project, the County Administrator was snubbing the public.

“This all began with the same architect’s space needs assessment from 2007. The County Administrator has made it known he’s comfortable with this architect, but if he’s that comfortable, perhaps that’s all the more reason to get bids from other architects, like other counties did.

“People are talking all the time about you,” Morris told the members of the Board. “They talk about you because you won’t open up to the public. What you’ve been given is a square footage cost estimate of anywhere from $159 to $249, but all that does is cover everybody’s butt when the bids come back and it costs more than you think.

“Of course everybody in county government and law enforcement and the courts would like to have more space, but what this is is a wants study, not a needs study. People aren’t going to believe this county needs to have 140 employees in 2020. I don’t understand why the county government thinks it’s going to need to double its space during the next few years.”

Another businessman and county resident, Kevin Gouldman, addressed the Board during the Dec. 12 meeting’s public comment segment.

“In April of this year,” Gouldman remembered, “a public information meeting was held to review the proposed courthouse. At this meeting the public was allowed to express their views and address any concerns or suggestions they might have concerning the proposed plans.

“After listening to a limited amount of public input, the Chairman [Woody Hynson] stated that he would reconvene this meeting in a larger venue at a later date. The Vice Chair [Darryl Fisher] recommended that any citizen with questions about the proposed plan forward these inquiries to [County Administrator] Norm Risavi, so they would be better informed at the next public comment meeting.

“On April 14 in the week following this meeting, I submitted a list of questions to Mr. Risavi’s office. After two requests and eight months later I received an answer to my question in the form of the Space Requirements Study prepared by [Rick Funk’s] dBF Associates.

“On Dec. 7 I came to what I thought was the promised public meeting, not as an adversary to building a much needed courthouse, but as a tax paying citizen with some concerns and objective criticisms concerning the Study. When I arrived, I was informed that the public would not be allowed to speak.

“I begin to wonder whether the board members have taken a serious look at the proposed needs and projected growth of the county as determined by its department heads,” Gouldman then stated.

“If you on the Board have reviewed this Study and believe it to be accurate, then you must be of the opinion that the county will add an additional 44 employees to the existing 102 now employed by the county by the end of 2020, eight years from now.

“These new employees include five court clerks. The county has no say in the hiring of these employees, but 23 would be added to the Sheriff’s Department, 3.5 to County Administration, one to Revenue, two to Finance, six to Land Use, one to Treasurer’s Department and none to maintenance!

“This Study also includes 897 square feet for locker, shower and exercise rooms for the Sheriff’s Department. Is this really necessary? Can’t the deputies shower and exercise at home or at the gym like the people who will pay for the project?

“This study also calls for a full bath in the Judge’s Chamber, a kitchenette and bath for the dispatch and a kitchenette for investigators. Is there any reason these two departments can’t use the same facilities in the Sheriff’s Department?

“These are just a few of the requests and growth predictions I have found in this Study. Let’s not forget that the proposed judicial center is based on this flawed Study.

“The Board has voted to proceed with the bid process on this project based on the information found in this Study, without fulfilling its promise and I feel its obligation to conduct a public hearing.

“This board should be advised that the purpose of a public review of this or any other proposal is to gain positive public input and use this input to form policy and make informed decisions, not just to fulfill a legal obligation,” he explained.

Steve Bryant weighed in, remarking that he was “unable to understand why the Board members can’t get public citizens involved in what’s going on.

“We have no input,” Bryant lamented. “Paying for this new courthouse will be a burden on all the county tax payers.”

“Having a nice new courthouse is not a reason for people to locate here, even if it means the prisoners have a nicer place to go!”

“Why does the county need more Land Use positions? Bill Alverson asked the Westmoreland County Board. “We don’t have anybody building houses,” he advised.
”Why didn’t you have a public hearing on the proposed judicial center?” Margaret Quinn asked the members of the Board. “This county has a lot of very intelligent people. They have good ideas, but you cut them off. As a consequence, there is a lot of anger regarding these issues.

“Why didn’t we have a public hearing?”

Addressing the Board for a second time, Gouldman stated, “You promised to continue the April meeting at a bigger venue. You probably did what you were required to do by law, but you didn’t keep the promise you made to the county citizens!”

“I just can’t understand the resistance on the part of this Board. There should have been more of these types of meetings,” Margaret Quinn explained.

Betsy Ficklin

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