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About those numbers… / June 27, 2019
I’m old enough to remember the days, long ago, when Halifax County officials would grumble about local newspaper reporters inflating the cost estimates of the Courthouse Renovation Project.

Good times, huh?

Old I may be, but my faculties remains intact enough to recall a particular episode: then-County Administrator Jim Halasz requesting a story that would “set the record straight” on the cost of the courthouse improvements. Being a community-minded newspaper, we were happy to provide space for the Board of Supervisors — and by extension Halasz, the person most responsible for guiding the courthouse’s future development — to present their spin on the matter.

The story ran Dec. 19, 2016, under the headline, “Halifax County supes seek to allay cost fears with Courthouse.” You can find the full version on our website, Here’s how it begins:

Halifax County supervisors sought Thursday to allay concerns about the cost burdens of the Courthouse Project by stressing that the impact on county finances is highly manageable.

Addressing the subject at their annual retreat at the SVHEC, board members and county staff emphasized that courthouse overhaul is budgeted for much less than the $20 million sum bandied about in the local media.

Officials made an open request to the press to correct what they called “misinformation” about the costs of the Courthouse renovations ...

... And so on.

I’m cutting the excerpt short, because most of the rest of the story deals with cost figures that are — how shall we say it? — no longer operable. Tuesday night in Halifax, the Board of Supervisors was presented with an updated bill that, while perhaps not entirely complete, captures virtually the full scope of the work left to be done to the courthouse, barring unforeseen disaster. So to the point: Was that “$20 million sum bandied about in the local media” a case study in misinformation?

Guess so. The real number is going to be somewhere around $27 million, or perhaps north by a million or two depending on project contingencies.

Ugh, double ugh and triple ugh.

What happened? Mostly this: the guiding principle behind the Board of Supervisors’ strategy on the courthouse was shot as full of holes as the concrete slabs that workers found when they attempted to renovate a portion of the complex. Once the county found that it couldn’t stick to the cheap-o route with improvements — attempting to fix up dilapidated buildings that should have been torn down years earlier — the professed tight-fisted budget got untight, quick.

I’ll get back to that point in a minute. First, a quick summary of what supervisors did on Tuesday:

» They approved a $9 million change order from their general contractor, Blair Construction, to go on top of the existing construction budget of $14 million (I’m using round numbers to make the math easy, but they’re surprisingly close to the actual dollar figures.)

» The change order covered two basic items: improvements to the historic main courthouse (new roof, foundation, etc.) and the cost of erecting a new building to replace the old courthouse annex (home of General District Court and domestic court) and the adjacent, standalone Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office building.

» Of that $9 million budget increase, most of the money — $7.5 million — is tied up in the replacement structure. Prior to the point when it became clear that renovation would never take, the county could keep the construction budget at around $14 million, owing to the ability to avoid the expense of new construction. Too bad it was all fiction.

Once the two buildings were demolished on the courthouse square, there was no telling how much the revised project would cost. No telling, that is, until Tuesday night.

So, just to continue our accounting:

» The new construction budget is around $23.1 million;

» Add about $4 million for expenses not accounted for site construction (legal fees, architectural and engineering costs, moving costs, the need to create interim court facilities, fixtures and furnishings, plus a whole lot more), and you’re left with a rough cost of $27 million-plus for the global budget (not including any financing costs.)

That’s it, except for the project contingencies, whatever that number proves to be. As for what pitfalls may lie ahead, well, ask Yogi Berra about that (‘It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”)

Was the courthouse cock-up unavoidable?

It’s certain true that restoring a nearly 200-year old building was almost certain to bring problems that no one could possibly anticipate. And just to be clear on one point, the idea of leaving Halifax County’s grand and historically significant courthouse to crumble and die was, and remains, unthinkable.

But of course, the worst troubles with the project don’t entail the old lady much at all. The bigger problems have been with the add-on structures — the prosecutors’ building especially, but also the annex for the lower courts, tacked on to the main building in the 1960s. I’m of little use with a hammer in my hand (ask my wife), but even I could have told you there was no future for the freestanding junk pile known as the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s building. Yet county officials resisted coming to grips with that reality to the bitter end. Why?

Let’s just say it: The budget blow-up that current board members suffered through Tuesday night is the legacy of former county administrator Jim Halasz, county attorney Jeremy Carroll, and all the members of the Board of Supervisors at the time who backed them to a hilt as they thoroughly mismanaged the project. This mismanagement takes many forms, but a short list of mistakes would include:

(1) Taking an overly confrontational approach working out the details of courthouse improvements with local judges (and then blaming said judges for the high cost of the work, knowing full well that members of the judiciary would never respond in turn);

(2) Kidding themselves and the rest of the county about the scope of the work that would ensue;

(3) Clinging to the idea that renovation, no matter how unfeasible, always is preferable to new construction (sound familiar?);

(3) Shutting out anyone and everyone who deigned to suggest a different approach, and then blaming them, too, when delays cropped up and the cost numbers crept forward.

The only acceptable part of this episode is the likelihood that taxes won’t rise even after the project budget blew up near the end of the process. That’s because supervisors did do one thing right in this saga, however regrettable you may view their decision: they tacked 2 cents onto the real estate tax to create a reliable funding stream for construction. According to County Administrator Scott Simpson (who, it should be noted, inherited a mess not of his own making), the money should be available to handle this big cost overrun, although I would imagine some payment schedules might get stretched out a bit. So, no need (at least for now) to worry about a future tax hit, and we can all look forward to the day when the courthouse stands proud in the Town of Halifax, instead of looming as the dilapidated disgrace that it had become. Good. It’s time to show a little pride in Halifax County, even in moments when our leadership gives us scant reason to feel it.

Hoping (and cautiously optimistic, by the way) that the current makeup of the Board of Supervisors will do better.

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