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JUDGE NOT: Courts’ power to compel project questioned

SoVaNow.com / September 01, 2016
Repeatedly over the past four years, members of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors have warned that the county must act to repair its crumbling courthouse or stand aside and watch judges dictate the scope of improvements — at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers.

The supervisors’ argument is rooted in the Code of Virginia, which spells out the legal process by which judges can compel localities to repair court facilities that are “insecure, out of repair, or otherwise pose a danger” to court employees and the public.

Under the Code, judges can go to court “to cause the necessary work to be done.”

And that’s what has happened in Halifax County — with the judiciary taking legal action and Board of Supervisors negotiating a settlement to expand, renovate and rebuild the circa-1838 Halifax courthouse, designed and constructed by renowned architect Dabney Cosby, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson’s.

The result is the Courthouse Project, pegged to cost $18-$20 million, although skeptics of the plan say the expense is likely to run much higher.

But while the language of the Code buttresses the power of the judiciary, Virginia law is not entirely on the judges’ side.

That’s because the General Assembly intervened years ago to strip the judiciary of its authority to compel localities to pay for courthouse improvements. It did so by adding language to the state budget that sets a moratorium on mandated courthouse improvements, including new construction.

The moratorium runs through June 30, 2018 — and the legislature has extended it multiple times since it was first enacted in 2008.

Del. James Edmunds, who said he learned of the budget language during this year’s session of the General Assembly, has advised county supervisors that they do not have to proceed with the Courthouse Project out of fear of losing in court to the judges.

“There are just no grounds for a suit, because the budget language, which is just as binding as the code, says they [supervisors] don’t have to do anything,” said Edmunds.

“I don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterback, but to say we were under stress and litigation and that’s why [supervisors] had to act without any community involvement, well, that’s not completely true,” he said.

County officials — who say they’ve known about the budget moratorium for some time — counter that the reality is more complex than Edmunds allows.

“It’s kind of like the [TV commercial], you can pay me now or you can pay me later,” said J.T. Davis, ED-1 supervisor.

“Nothing has been done to renovate the courthouse since the ‘60s annex [portion was built]. We’re 56 years down the road. The courthouse is in dire need of repair.”

Not acting now, Davis added, only serves to “kick the can down the road.”

County Administrator Jim Halasz said the General Assembly may have blocked enforcement of the Code section, but it hasn’t rewritten the law — and judges still “have the legal right to say you have to have a plan in place to make the courthouse safe and functional.

“We wouldn’t have been in court for four years if [judges] didn’t have that authority,” said Halasz.

“Today they can’t make us spend the money, but as soon as that language disappears” judges will have the upper hand in court proceedings — all the more reason supervisors were wise to negotiate a settlement on courthouse improvements now, said Halasz.

“If someone thinks we’re not going to build the courthouse because we don’t have to do it today, they’re just wrong — the day of reckoning will come,” said Halasz. “People pose the issue as if it were a trick question, that you can actually completely default on your obligation to [fix] the courthouse. And you can’t. It’s not a valid question to ask, really.”

Edmunds, for his part, disagrees.

The Halifax delegate, currently serving his fourth term, said he began speaking with board members earlier this year about Halifax County’s legal obligations with the courthouse after first discussing the situation with Del. Steve Landis, a fellow Republican and member of the House Appropriations Committee, which oversees the state budget. Edmunds said he expressed his concerns to Landis about the financial burdens the county was facing, and Landis brought up the budget amendment — which states that court-mandated improvements “shall be delayed at the request of the local governing body in which the court is located until June 30, 2018.”

“‘I think your problem is fixed right here,” Edmunds recalled Landis as saying.

Edmunds said he passed on the information to several members of the Board of Supervisors in the belief that it would alleviate the legal pressure on the county — and perhaps allow the supervisors to strike a better deal in negotiations with the judges.

“They kept on saying they were under the gun on this suit, and that’s when I called and said, ‘Look, guys, you don’t have to settle because they really can’t sue you,’” he said.

“They never indicated to me that they were not willing to step back and pause, until I read in the paper they had voted” to approve a consent order with judges of the 10th Judicial District which includes the Courthouse Project schematics.

“I’m not going to question the wisdom of why they did it” — the Board vote — “but they all knew prior to voting that there was no legal requirement to do so at the time,” Edmunds said.

“It bugs me to no end that we’re spending $18 million to fix the courthouse, and it’ll probably be $25 million when it’s all over with,” he continued. “Personally, I believe our money can and should be spent more wisely, not least of which for the high school itself.”

Edmunds, who described the HCHS building as “really dirty” and outdated, said improvements to the school would be much more beneficial to county citizens than the renovation of the courthouse, although he acknowledged the dilapidated building needs repairs and stabilizing.

“I think the money could be spent more wisely to benefit a lot more people,” he said.

Asked why supervisors would ignore his advice by going ahead and voting to settle with the judges, Edmunds — himself a former county supervisor and Board vice chair — replied, “I think quite frankly they were just tired of fooling with it.

“My intention is not to pick a fight with any board member; they’re all intelligent people in their own right, but they didn’t have to take that vote.”

According to Davis, however, the Board would run the risk of burdening taxpayers with millions of dollars in future costs to repair the Courthouse if members had chosen the present moment to drag their feet.

“If we say we’re not going to do anything, it doesn’t stop the litigation,” he said. “We could pull the plug right now. But they [the judges] will still take us to court and there’ll be a presiding judge who will tell us what we need to do when the moratorium is lifted. I think we all know how that is going to come out.”

By negotiating a settlement, Davis said the county was able to strike two items that judges initially asked for — a wholesale teardown and reconstruction of the annex building, where the General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court are housed, and addition of a bomb-proof wall along the Edmunds Boulevard perimeter of the courthouse square.

“I would argue that we’ve saved $4.5 million because of that,” he said.

Also, Davis claimed that the cost of courthouse repairs and construction rises by almost five percent per year — more reason not to wait — and meantime the Board of Supervisors has responsibility for a building that is badly out of compliance, both in terms of courthouse security and handicap access. “What if something goes awry? Somebody is going to sue the county because we knew something had to be done and we didn’t do it,” he said.

“I don’t think the people elected us to put the county in that position,” Davis added.

Halasz observed that the General Assembly routinely adds and deletes provisions of the budget each session, which is “not the same as state code that stays in until it’s amended.” Relying on the budget moratorium on courthouse spending to block action by the judges would create a standoff that the county will lose sooner or later, he said.

“The choice is: Do you just sit and see if you’re forced to do something because the courthouse falls down, or see if the budget language goes away? Are either of those good choices?” he asked.

Edmunds, however, said he believes the legislature is likely to keep extending the moratorium. Even if it doesn’t, he said, “I say you still have two years to come up with a compromise.

“I guarantee you [the current plan] will run more than $18 million at the end of the day, and we’ll still have no [new] parking, in fact we’ll have even less parking than we do now.”



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Comments

There is a fundamental problem with people like JT Davis who fight for government and not sanity on behalf of the people they serve. Please tell me why it is rational or logical for the people to live in houses in this county with a median home value of $100,000 build a government house valued at $20,000,000. Look around at the dilapidated homes and businesses. 95 million people out of the labor force, and a $266 million budget shortfall for Virginia's 2016 fiscal year. Are you people even alive? If you are, please open your eyes and look around. You all have not done your jobs and brought new jobs to this area to pay for such exorbitant expenses. I'm certain with no ability to force payment and minimal effort on your part you can come up with a more reasonable renovation cost.

Comments

Zombie, Pay now pay me later!! Later has arrived-just saying!!!

Comments

You've got to love the typical political response to being caught spending money unwisely and unnecessarily. "County officials — who say they’ve known about the budget moratorium for some time — counter that the reality is more complex than Edmunds allows." It's too "complex" for James Edmunds and the rest of our underpowered brains to be able to comprehend. They're the ones trying to spend the $20 million with the job market and economy in shambles yet we are accused of being simpletons. Just because board members have all their property paid for and don't have to balance a checkbook on a constant basis doesn't mean everyone else can. You all are out of touch with the financial reality of this county.

Comments

Later Joe would technically be June 30, 2018 assuming multiple extensions of the moratorium did not continue. Bring more jobs in Joe. Isn't that what politicians do?

Comments

"Not acting now, Davis added, only serves to “kick the can down the road.”" Sure you can keep kicking the can down the road JT. Just pretend it's the mold problem that still exists at the High School and your responsibility is the safety and health of the county's most precious resource, the children.

Comments

Thank you Del. Edmunds. I hope that all the county people that voted for JT Davis, see now that he cannot be trusted. We do not need to spend this money! Repair what needs to be repaired an move on. I hope that the historical society or some other citizens group will take this thing to court to block the county. At least we have common sense in the House of Delegates!

Comments

Halasz is a snake that is continually pushing for " closed door meetings". Uh Jim the county business is OUR business stop trying to conceal facts from the citizens. The Courthouse will be shown to cost $25 mil and if people dig into documents you will find a money trail and gifts and donations from those who stand to profit from this structure. Be very alert and question everything. After all it is OUR money. GLad to see Edmunds calling this issue out. Let them build a new facility at the fairgrounds for $10 million.

Comments

i am confused why does the building moratorium in any way inhibit the judges ability to sue, it simply means that if they win they can't compel the building (actual construction) till the end of the moratorium. I am assuming the language matches what is listed in the article. If the legislature actually wanted local control they should pass and amend laws to make that clear, if they want state control they should pay for the facilities, the current system seems designed for high costs and confusion. Also if the county or the legislature want a courthouse that is “insecure, out of repair, or otherwise pose a danger” then we need different elected officials.

Comments

Maybe the purpose of the moratorium was to stop judges with wishful thinking from being able to saddle the local taxpayers with exorbitant costs like a $20million dollar renovation.

Comments

JT Davis and the rest are strikingly reminiscent of John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and the gang of eight Republican scum that folded on their congressional control mandate. They win control of congress to stop Obamacare and prevent amnesty then expect everyone to forget they control the votes and more specifically the money while crying out to their constituents they’re helpless to stop it.

Comments

Let the BOD hold a fundraiser to get cash to build the courthouse. see how long that would take.
The idiots like Davis can't turn around as they are more concerned with protecting their positions on the courthouse. He and Witt are full steam ahead to County bankruptcy with their motto being "we can't stop now the judge told us to keep going". Fools.
These are the same type who want the people to forget our biggest strength is on the county level. These fools throw their hands in the air claiming "there's nothing we can do to stop it". The People's biggest strength is right now when we say STOP. The statists would have us forget that the People are the power not the judiciary and not the govt that no longer represents it rightful Owners.

Comments

Davis and the rest of the BOS used Judge Cunningham as the badguy to saddle the poor county taxpayers with this excessive debt that will cripple this county for 50 plus years. Wonder how much the bribes and payoffs for this criminal board of supes will amount to. Same ole, same ole, bid rigging and payoffs. Think of the good use that those Millions of dollars could have been used for to help our communities if we could have afforded it. This is a pathetic county with the most corrupt official in the state of Virginia. Maybe Davis will make enough off of this boondoggle to not run anymore.


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