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Courthouse renovation budget jumps $9 million, but officials say cost is covered by prior tax hike / June 27, 2019
The full cost of the Halifax County Courthouse Renovation Project came into focus Tuesday night for members of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors, prompting dismay over a $9 million change order that pushes up the construction budget well above prior estimates.

The change order brings the cost of construction to $23.1 million, said County Administrator Scott Simpson. As recently as 2016, then-county administrator Jim Halasz and others suggested construction could be completed at the courthouse square for around $16 million.

Despite that sizeable jump, Simpson said the good news is that the extra expense won’t trigger further tax increases after the passage of 2-cent real estate tax hike in 2014 to finance the courthouse renovations.

“Everything should be positive moving forward, and any of these additional costs should not affect the structure of county finances or require a tax increase,” Simpson said.

But the discontent was palpable among board members Tuesday night as they absorbed the cost details of the work ahead, to be carried out by Blair Construction, the project general contractor, and its subcontractors.

“I hate to be ugly, but I have that [construction] contract at my house and I looked over it. I probably would have fired or sued them [Blair Construction] by now. It’s just too much,” said Board vice chairman Hubert Pannell, ED-3.

The $8,990,324.90 change order breaks down two major ways. A portion of the increase, for roughly $1.5 million, covers the cost of installing a new roof on the early 19th century main courthouse building, shoring up the building’s foundations and improving ADA accessibility, and reworking Edmunds Boulevard, which loops behind the courthouse from Main Street to Mountain Road. The Edmunds Boulevard work will make the street permanently one-way and provide additional on-street parking in rear of courthouse square.

The second and larger portion of the change order, for nearly $7.5 million, covers the cost of erecting a new building to replace two structures that were demolished after they were determined to be in too poor condition to renovate.

Those buildings were the century-old Commonwealth’s Attorney office building, standing adjacent to the main courthouse, and the 1960s-era annex, which housed general district court and juvenile and domestic relations court. Both buildings have been torn down in recent months; they will be replaced with a larger structure that consolidates the functions of both buildings into one.

As recently as a couple of months ago, the construction budget for work at the courthouse square hovered around $14 million. But that was before it became clear that additional repairs and improvements were needed to the main courthouse, and, more significantly, before county officials had received the cost figure from Blair Construction and CMJW, the project architect, for the new building addition.

Previously, the working estimate for replacing the annex building and the prosecutors’ office was around $4.7 million. That guess proved to be well shy of the actual $7,464,000 price tag submitted by Blair and CMJW.

Simpson said the building’s cost jumped significantly because “the construction market has changed drastically in the last six months. Unfortunately, contractors and subcontractors are able to be more selective in the work they take on” because of stepped-up demand for construction services.

“Those were the reasons explained to us and a lot of that made sense,” he said.

Other work that is covered under the $9 million change order, such as the new roof for the main courthouse, had not been previously factored into the construction budget, but the necessity of the work does not come as a complete surprise, Simpson said.

The old roof, for instance, revealed problems with lead and asbestos contamination, scotching earlier plans to repair it with new coats of paint. “It would be painting a roof that had some age on it,” said Simpson. “It would be wise with a project of this magnitude to have a new roof over the entire facility.”

The foundations of the building are being lowered by 32 inches to even out the floor level of the entire complex and improve handicap access.

With the change order, Simpson said, the county finally has a firm sense of the full cost of courthouse improvements, although he cautioned that more change orders could arise as construction proceeds — just nothing like the revision that supervisors received and approved by unanimous vote on Tuesday.

Aside from having no immediate tax impact, the good news, said Simpson, is that Tuesday’s board vote clears the way for builders to begin work on the replacement facility, after pausing for months while the county and the building partners settled on a plan. That time was spent remediating and preparing the courthouse site, such as by removing an underground stormwater pipe that no one knew existed.

“I think this relieves a lot of uncertainty and points us in a positive direction,” said Simpson. Final construction is on target for April 2021: “It extended the date a little bit, but I’m hopeful and confident with positive action that the court system will be satisfied with the work.”

Blair has already begun to deploy “additional forces on the project,” Simpson said, adding he expects that by late July or early August, “the public should see structural steel being erected and the building taking shape. I’m glad we’re moving forward.”

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