There has been much news and discussion about the Halifax County Courthouse renovation. It has been a long and contentious journey for all involved. When I came on the board in 2016, the courthouse project was still a tangled web of design issues.
The origin goes back to 2012 when the Commonwealth of Virginia sued Halifax County requiring the county to provide adequate courthouse facilities for the local judicial system. This suit was requested by then Circuit Court Judge Joel Cunningham Sr. This began a process the likes of which no one had seen before. From 2012 to 2017 negotiations began between the Commonwealth of Virginia and Halifax County. The commonwealth had an architect and attorney, and Halifax had an architect and attorney. The leading document for this process was the Virginia Courthouse Facility Guidelines. This was all defined in the Code of Virginia. In the middle of this was a Citizens Advisory Group who was to give their input for final design work.
One can only imagine the amount of ongoing negotiating within a group of this makeup. During this four to five year process, negotiating was kept behind closed doors per legal interpretation of both counsels.
Upon agreement of a design in 2016, keeping the 1960’s courthouse addition intact, the board of supervisors held its first public viewing of the design in January of 2017. After several years of frustration many groups weighed in on the design, including historical preservationists, the town of Halifax, stakeholders and the commonwealth’s attorney, who’s office was not included in the initial suit by the commonwealth.
Several design changes resulted from the public input, particularly, the entrance to the new addition.
Also during this time the judge of record became Circuit Court Judge Kim White following the retirement of Judge Cunningham. And at the end of the day, the commonwealth held sway over most final design changes. When all parties agreed to a final design, the board of supervisors approved a bid of $14.8 million in January of 2018. Keep in mind this was for the courthouse only, and there was still the challenge of addressing the commonwealth attorney’s office.
Then Murphy’s Law of “what can go wrong will” kicked in. Structural deficiencies were found in the walls of the 1960’s addition. These were undetectable from the inspections done by design engineers and only discovered when the building was gutted. Repair for these walls was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars with considerable construction delay and could still carry an air of liability.
The board of supervisors approved to raze the 1960’s addition. That decision opened the door to addressing the commonwealth attorney’s office space, which at the time involved the renovation of a free-standing dilapidated building on the courthouse square. There were also issues of security and efficiency for the commonwealth’s attorney and staff. The board of supervisors thus had an opportunity to attach the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to the planned courthouse and end up with a complete project for years to come.
The renovation of the commonwealth’s attorney’s office had always been part of the board of supervisors’ long range plan.
The board of supervisors has been conscious of costs all along the way. The current board has only two of eight members who were on the board during the whole process. This board inherited decisions of previous boards, and that is not a criticism of anyone. This was a convoluted process, and as the dominoes fell, different boards of supervisors had to adapt.
One must also account for inflation as well as the cost of delay for contractors and subcontractors.
Today’s construction cost stands at $23.1 million that includes attaching the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to the courthouse, additional space in the floor plan of the clerk’s office, additional archival storage below the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, issues dealing with Edmunds Street and surrounding grounds and ADA access. All these contributed to increased cost.
The board of supervisors is never happy when costs go up significantly, and it finds itself between a rock and a hard spot. But all things considered, it is remarkable that we have arrived at a solution that, even though it is more than anyone wanted to spend, the board of supervisors will not have to raise taxes to complete the project.
The board of supervisors has planned carefully for the debt, (thanks to the wisdom of previous boards), and our debt structure for the county can accommodate the entire project. It was a choice of making the best of a difficult situation.
When completed the courthouse square should be a source of pride for all citizens and our judicial system. This is a 50 plus year construction project. It will serve our county well and continue to be a source of economic activity for the town of Halifax.
It is important that you take the long view in your assessment of this community project.