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MONEYPIT: Courthouse plan takes shape, draws criticism

South Boston News
SoVaNow.com / June 27, 2019

Emotions among Halifax County supervisors ran the gamut from relief to frustration as they debated — and ultimately approved — a $9 million upward revision in the courthouse renovation budget on Tuesday night.

“This is the final hurrah of the courthouse, if you will,” said board chairman Dennis Witt.

While the change order by Blair Construction, general contractor, sends the construction budget zooming past earlier estimates, Witt noted that the cost numbers could have been even worse for the county.

Initially, Blair Construction priced the change order at $9,809,117, but county officials were able to bring that figure down significantly.

Witt, joined on a subcommittee by County Administrator Scott Simpson and ED-6 supervisor Stanley Brandon, “sat down with the architects and the contractors to see if there was any way to reduce that [$9,809,117 change order],” said the board chair. In fact, Witt added, “we did reduce it almost a million dollars.”

The change order raises the construction budget to $23.1 million, which covers the cost of making the latest improvements to the main courthouse and erecting a replacement facility for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and the courthouse annex, where general district court and juvenile and domestic relations courts have been housed. Both buildings had to be torn down rather than renovated due to their decrepit condition.

Earlier estimates pegged the courthouse construction budget at approximately $16 million — a figure that does not include associated costs such as for fixtures and furnishings, the provision of interim court facilities, and assorted fees, such as for engineering, legal and architectural work, moving services and project management.

The budget for those items is roughly $4.5 million, excluding the amount of money set aside for project contingencies.

Supervisors took action Tuesday to trim one cost item in the budget that is unrelated to Blair Construction or CMJW Architects. Members opted to terminate the contract for Skansa to serve as project manager overseeing courthouse renovations.

Instead, supervisors tasked Simpson and members of county staff with the job of reviewing the work at the courthouse square.

Halifax County had been paying Skansa somewhere around $10,000 to $12,000 monthly. Simpson said the board’s decision to drop the outside project manager should save the county about $300,000 over the remaining life of the project.

Despite these actions, several board members made it clear that they weren’t happy with how the process turned out.

“I understand … that we have got to do something now, but my god, I believe we’re going to make Blair a million, plus a million, plus another million dollars. It’s getting to be crazy right here,” Pannell said.

Prior to the 8-0 vote to accept the change order, Witt opened the floor to comments by fellow supervisors. ED-8 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne jumped in immediately. “I couldn’t wait [to be allowed to speak],” he began.

“I have to make this statement, y’all, because I’ve been on this board since this came up,” Claiborne said. Aside from ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis, no other member of the Board of Supervisors was part of the initial board discussions over the future of the courthouse. “Six years ago this thing came up, and this board is not to blame for anything — none of them were here — but I just have to say the same issue came up, and six years ago it would have cost us approximately $10 million to do the courthouse,” Claiborne said.

“Don’t blame the people that’s up here, because that’s [the change order] something that should have been done six years ago. And I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t say that.”

Claiborne added that “I think some of the people that we hired allowed politics to get in the way. I’m not going to sit back and call names of the people I’m talking about there, but those people need to not be political. That’s all I’m saying.”

Rather than laying blame on supervisors, Claiborne suggested the public should consider the role of the county’s advisors and staff in developing plans for the courthouse. “I think there was too much improper advice given to us. We’re not the professionals here. We’re just a governing board. The professionals are the people we hire,” he said.

That drew a retort from Davis, who also served on the Board of Supervisors in 2011 when members first weighed a response to judges’ demands for a modern and secure courthouse facility. Referring to Claiborne’s comment about “improper advice,” Davis said, “It’s just not that simple.”

He said the demands by the judiciary played a major role in driving up the cost of courthouse improvements and said attorneys on all sides — for the county, the judges and the architect — made for difficult communication and hard feelings.

“You had to speak through a filter … We were basically forbid to communicate with those folks,” said Davis, adding, “It could’ve been a lot easier path we could have gone down.”

He also faulted outside parties, including the Town of Halifax, for seeking changes to the evolving courthouse renovation plan. “I’ve almost lost count of the number of drawings we’ve had. At one point I think it was 18.

“It is the most frustrating thing I have dealt with in my professional career, barring none,” Davis said. “It could have been a narrower path, but … we’ve got to get back to work. This is the bottom line. We’re moving forward but believe me, it was not an easy journey.”

The exchange between the veteran supervisors carried echoes of the bitter fight in 2015, when the board split sharply over the performance of then-County Admninistrator Jim Halasz and County Attorney Jeremy Carroll. Both played lead roles in the negotiations with judges over the scope of the courthouse project.

Claiborne was part of a four-member bloc that sought to oust Halasz, while Davis was on the other side, also numbering four members.

The only other current member serve during the 2015 impasse, Pannell, came on the board that year, some four years after the courthouse issue first arose.

Urging members to move forward so that construction work can resume, Brandon made the motion to approve the change order, with Claiborne requesting a roll call vote. Staying silent during the discussion were board members Jeff Francisco, Garland Ricketts and Joey Rogers. All eight board members voiced their approval of the change order.

Pannell paused before voting: “Well, reluctantly yes,” he said.

“That is unanimous, with a small reluctance,” Witt said, causing members to break into laughter.

“Well, this is a big moment in the Halifax County history and a big vote tonight. We are going to move forward on our courthouse project. We want to thank Blair for sitting at the table with us and the architects for their work on this and we look forward to a successful project,” Witt concluded.

“But don’t y’all come back,” said Brandon.

“Unless you have a refund for us,” Claiborne added.



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Comments

ED-8 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne hit the nail on the head, the then County Administrator had NEVER managed a project of the magnitude of the Courthouse. He was an outsider who at best was second in command at Staunton in charge of small project and is a bull-headed my way or the highway kind of person. he did not engage the Town of Halifax, The Historical Society nor the general public in guiding the design and purpose of the new Courthouse. ED-1 supervisor JT Davis noted they "We were basically forbid to communicate with those folks” well that may be true with the Judges but it DOES NOT include the community, general public, or the Town of Halifax, who has a RIGHT as a local zoning authority within the Town to request changes that don't fit in with their Comprehensive Plan. The County Admin NOR County Attorney did their due diligence in planning of this major project, it was DOOMED to fail and go over budget.

Comments

Corruption! I knew we would be at 30$ mil by the time those in the network started jacking up "costs". from the architects, consultants, and BOS who are taking cash gifts through family memebrs. Keep an eye out on the BOS who may be driving brand new cars in next years or even currently. I am calling State Police to have this investigated!
The courthouse could be completed if they had just used the old Burlington factory site.

Comments

yuck, yuck , yuck, we just cost Halifax $9mil more. Haha. Thats what we have as a BOS. They point the finger when Claiborne and Davis have been there from the git go.
Witt didn't save squat. Blair knows how to play this, the cost is X but we will present to ytou Y and when you ask for what we can drop, we will claim to have sharpened our pencils and save you 1mil.Witt can then claim to be a hero. Brood of vipers costing the county millions more than what it should have been. Follow the money with Blair and the BOS and the cost over runs are not complete. Who has faith in the BOS "keeping the project on tract and under budget?" no one.
I'd like to get Halasz's perspective on this and see what he says since the BOS is blaming him. I love to see Halasz post something from his perspective.

Comments

You only need read the Viewpoint article "Disastrous plan" by Donna Strange. Excerpt: "Ms. Bass, speaking as a tax payer, was the first to question why the supervisors had not consulted the general public before engaging architects, preparing to borrow millions of dollars, and kept all architectural plans hidden...there was no “gag” order as leaders referred to, to prevent supervisors from discussing this important process with citizens." The Rainbow Coalition comprised of William Bryant Claiborne, Barry Bank, Lottie Nunn, & Hubert Pannell tried to get rid of Halasz & Attorney Carroll who were poorly handling the Courthouse fiaso. But J.T. Davis, Tom West, Larry Giordano and Doug Bowman dissented, resulting in the deadlock that last much of 2015. I wonder what other secrets they did NOT want revealed by the Whistleblower. Claiborne has been targeted for doing what is right in efforts to expose corruption in the local Judiciary. The taxpayers deserves to know the truth.

Comments

This is ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS!!! For $23million we could have bulldozed the whole town of Halifax, started from scratch with all new buildings throughout. Way to spend money the county doesn't have and ultimately raise our taxes all in one vote.

Comments

Now let's go build a $100 million new high school.

Comments

Absolutely no leadership on the BOS. Corruption and no regard for the poor citizens that are being ripped off. A pity of a county.


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