Last night was a called study session to discuss the proposed layout of the old Regions Bank Building... now known as the Bedford County Courthouse Annex.
Mayor Ray called the meeting as a direct result of my challenge to the $204,000 budget amendment before the Commission last month. Up to this point, the project had not been properly presented to the Courthouse and Property Committee for discussion and recommendation, nor has there been a proper vote on the use and funding of that building by the full Commission in the 5 years since the County purchased it !
The discussion last night seemed to many to be an orchestrated sales pitch but answered a few questions while raising even more.
I pointed out that when the Justice Center is complete the Courthouse will be empty. (except for Veterans office and the Archives) The plans presented last night by Mayor Ray even has the Mayors office being relocated to the new Annex... WHY !! I asked Mayor Ray what was going to be done about an empty courthouse and his answer was, moving his office was “temporary” and we will have to work on moving something else in there, but would not elaborate on what. I say DO NOT MOVE the Mayors office at all. In fact I believe there will be room for at least one of the of the fee offices.
Last night was the first time many of the Commissioners had ever been presented a layout of the basement and 1st floor, and it was the first time any of us had seen the proposed 2nd & 3rd floor which is shown as housing the Property Assessor, Finance Dept., the Codes Dept., and the Mayors office. I asked about cost for those offices, and while there have been no bids, it is estimated to cost $90 /sf. (another $750,000)
The big issue of the night was whether or not it would even be legal to house the Elections office on the same floor as any elected office. It was pointed out by the Election Commission, that having incumbent elected officers going back and forth past the election office during voting season, and even having their name on the door of their office next to the Election Office, would violate the law against campaigning within 100 ft.
The Election Office says to preserve privacy and accommodate the many early voters, they need the entire annex basement. When asked if staying at the courthouse would work, they said no, because the building is not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act. It has been working so far, and I think that the ADA issue could be corrected by adding wider doors with actuators and reworking the ramp. It would certainly solve the problem of elected officials being within 100ft. The architect, Mr. Davis, will be meeting with the Elections office soon to create a layout in the annex that will work for them.
Why is there such a rush to move these offices at this time? After all the County purchased the bank 5 years ago. Last night, we heard complaints about the current US Bank having sewer smells, wet walls, general lack of maintenance, being too hot or too cold, mold and brown recluse spiders. There were issues of lack of privacy and parking. We were told about lack of space for growth. All the complaints are probably valid, but is moving right now the right solution? Has there been a serious meeting with US Bank to correct the maintenance issues. I noticed that just this morning, the bank has guys working on the rear entrance doors, so I have to wonder is that coincidence or a genuine response to fix a problem.
Since this meeting was a study session there could not be any voting on what actions to take, but I highly suspect the majority of the commission will soon vote to not only give in on adding $204,000 to the $520,000 budget, but increase it at least another $325,000 to cover an additional floor, if not $750,000 additional for the entire building. The one thing that was made clear was whatever the new layout becomes, it is expected that the plans be presented to the Courthouse and Property Committee for study and debate BEFORE being sent to the Finance Committee. Lets see if that really happens.
Just like with the Justice Center having unresolved problems (site prep, roads, bridges, furnishings and equipment, manpower) and millions of dollars in unknown or unplanned expenses which have not been presented to or discussed by the Committees , and just like the School Board beginning the construction on Cascade High School without a firm plan on sewer lines, it seems as if the cart gets before the horse and projects are not thoroughly discussed and problems considered and or resolved. I have to say, many Commissioners have asked repeatedly for opportunities to discuss these issues. Most of the time, we are placated by promises of information or opportunities for discussion which never come.
Another BIG upcoming issue which has been handled improperly outside the Standing Committees is the way the School Board is planning to build a new CTE building at SCHS. That discussion about how the BoE hijacked the financing of the Cascade High School in order to push the CTE project is in a previous blog post, but really illustrates how big, controversial issues get handled improperly.
The Courthouse is the centerpiece of our County and I cannot believe the rush by many to empty it out without a real plan to use it in a meaningful way. I cannot vote to spend any money on that annex until firm plans are in place on utilizing the courthouse !