- Last Updated on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 15:19
- Published on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 15:19
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When the Westmoreland Supervisors met last Monday, District 5 Supervisor Larry Roberson launched a discussion of how best to proceed with complying with Circuit Court Judge Harry Taliaferro's request for a new judicial center. According to preliminary findings, the facility will cost county taxpayers a staggering $12 million.
Also on the list of building priorities is a new county high school. Roberson proposed to move forward with property acquisition and the new high school construction project in order to free existing space at the old high school for county government.
According to Roberson's reasoning, the county government could be relocated to Washington and Lee High School and the entire George D. English Building could then be available for use by the county's courts. Improvements could be made during conversion of the English Building's interior that would fulfill the judicial system's 21st century security requirements and everything could be accomplished at nominal cost to local taxpayers.
"If we build the new high school [before we build a new judicial center]," Roberson began, "we would have the old high school building with its new $1.9 million roof and heat pumps and we could move the school board and county administration into the old high school.
"Then we could revamp the English Building for the courts for a cost considerably below the projected $12 million cost of a new judicial center. We could have a new high school and with some modifications we could have an appropriate level of security in the English Building [to accommodate the courts]."
Roberson, a retired educator from Colonial Beach, advised that the state has sets of architectural plans it can share that would cut costs by eliminating unnecessary architectural fees. He noted that a purchase of property adjacent to the existing county high school would save more money by allowing existing playing fields to be utilized.
"People have been screaming about the prospect of having to spend $12 million for a new court facility," the District 5 Supervisor continued. "Our County Administrator says Colonial Beach uses the courts the most, but that mailing address goes all the way to Leedstown.
"I think this is a better idea. We need to let the people of Westmoreland County known that the $12 million judicial complex isn't a done deal. This board will have to conduct a lot of work sessions to discuss the options. I don't want to raise taxes, but most people would rather raise taxes to pay for a new high school than for a new courthouse."
"I'm still waiting for a work session on the court facility. We need to see what compromises can be made," District 2 Supervisor Russ Culver told the other members of the Board.
"In the long run," District 3 Supervisor Lynn Brownley interjected, "the school is going to be more important to the culture of the community.
"But," Brownley then stated, "the judges will take us to court if we don't respond [to the request].
"When the economy improves, perhaps there will be a rise in this county's student population and we'll be able to get more state and federal help. Right now we need to look at all our options."
Board of Supervisors Chairman Woody Hynson noted that any considerations will necessarily be premature until the supervisors have had an opportunity to conduct a series of work sessions with their judicial system and law enforcement counterparts.
"We've had a needs assessment on our buildings and I've been working on ways we might cut costs," Hynson said.
"Our charge as Westmoreland County Supervisors is simple. We must spend county taxpayer money as wisely as possible. I remember when we went through the period of remodeling this county's schools. When the time came to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act we had to look at the upstairs of the old courthouse.
"The $12 million cost estimate for a new judicial center was a surprise I hadn't counted on. I don't intend to put more taxes on people during a recessionary period and there isn't anyone who will ever accuse me of not planning for the future.
"I've been encouraging this county for many years to find land for a new school. I'd never agree to spend that amount of money on the high school roof unless I expected them to be there for a while. If we are going to have to put out $40 million to accomplish all of this," Hynson told the District 5 Board member, "it's going to add more than just a little to the [tax rate] and it's my personal feeling that you have better have four other supervisors in agreement because one will surely chicken out."
Hynson then drew from the service as the District 4 Supervisor that began in January 1992.
"When we rebuilt this county's schools we knew we would eventually have to build a new high school. Several years will be needed to collect information about the appropriate size and other research, but we know right now about the needs of this county's courts."
Recalling the move of the county's Circuit Court from the old courthouse to the English Building following the December 1990 English Building fire, Hynson pronounced that "the 20-year mark" has been reached when considering the judicial system's utilization of the English Building facilities.
"We patched up the Sheriff's Office a couple times over the years, and thank goodness for the regional jail that got us out of that old county jail," the Chair recalled for the benefit of audience and board members who arrived more recently.
"It's clear that we are going to have to build something and we've looked at a building study," Hynson then said.
"At this moment I'm dragging my feet on purpose and I'm not dragging my feet out of disconcern. I know we can get a cheaper contract now when the economy is bad, but I also know our people can't pay that kind of taxes at this time. The other board members and I are working to solve these issues, but I won't go out and do anything right now.
"The reason I've taken this position is I'm aware of condition the state and federal government are in right now. Right now our own people just don't have that kind of money. The Board of Supervisors' charge is to spend the taxpayers' money wisely.
"Everyone on this board and on our county payroll needs to do a lot more study so we come up with five board members who are in agreement about how we will move forward. Whether we build a school or judicial center will have to be studied and no one is going to put a gun in my back and tell me it must be done tomorrow."
Culver weighed in with a final comment.
"The needs assessment study is not a Bible," he said of the document proposing the $12 million judicial center.
"The needs assessment also says we need 47 more county employees," Culver commented with a laugh.
"One thing is certain. Before any of this happens, a lot of meetings will have to take place and a lot of thought will have to take place, also, before we establish what our needs actually are. All parties involved will have to come together, sit down and see what's realistic."
A public comment segment followed and the first citizen who approached the podium thanked Roberson for his "creative" suggestion and suggested consolidating the Colonial Beach and Westmoreland County schools. Another resident took advantage of the public comment segment and suggested that the county schools consolidate with Richmond County instead of the Town of Colonial Beach.
County Administrator Norm Risavi has worked in Westmoreland long enough to appreciate that Roberson has long known as a staunch defender of Colonial Beach's independent school division.
"I don't think consolidating the town and county schools was part of Mr. Roberson's suggestion," Risavi said with a smile. Roberson laughed, but did not address the town and county school consolidation topic.