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Opinion

Best laid plans

SoVaNow.com / October 25, 2018
I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this whole business with the Halifax County Courthouse renovation project. On Monday we learned the price tag just went up by more than $2.3 million and we’re still early in the process of fixing up the annex building, constructed in the 1960s as a wing onto the main historic courthouse. What happens when a contractor starts poking around a different part of the courthouse square, inside the single most atrocious structure of county government, the flat-falling-down, 100-year-old (give or take a few years) Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office? It’s like what Scooby said to Shaggy: Rut r’oh.

On Monday, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 with one abstention to spend an estimated $2,357,765 (construction and design costs included) to scrap the annex and start over. Supervisors opted for the most expensive of four options for upgrading the building where General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court are held, and contrary to what you might think — no one likes spending money unnecessarily — it’s about time. It took actually tearing down the exterior walls and looking at the innards of the building to determine that it isn’t worth saving. Better to bite the bullet and build anew rather than resort to the usual approach — chicken wire, duct tape and wads of chewing gum — for propping up Halifax County’s undermaintained, outdated, abused structures.

How did we get to this point, where Halifax is having to spend $20 million (up from $17 million last week) to bring the courthouse complex into the modern era? (As long as we’re junking up our prose with an excess of parenthetical points, who wants to take bets that the final cost figure stays at $20 million. Anyone? No?) The first part of our answer, of course, is that local judges, backed by the Virginia Supreme Court, demanded that Halifax County fulfill its legal obligation to provide secure and modern court facilities for the administration of justice. The Board of Supervisors, led by former administrator Jim Halasz, spent way too much time fighting the judges in an argument the county was destined to lose, then tried to cut corners with a project design for satisfying the judges’ demands. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: $17 million doesn’t exactly sound like a plan that’s missing any corners. Why not go find some empty space in a shopping center someplace and move the courts there? Um, sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

Explaining all the wherefores and why-do’s of the courthouse renovation project is beyond my capabilities (and people complain this column is too long as it is, so there) but suffice it to say what happened Monday night exposed the Board of Supervisors’ wrongheaded approach to the problem from the start. In that sense, I’m glad members have finally come around and accepted the notion that spending more money upfront will ultimately deliver greater value to the taxpaying public over the long haul. Supervisors studied four options for fixing up the annex, and these options essentially fell into two categories: stick with the plan to renovate, or start fresh and rebuild. (The 1960s annex, by the way, houses not only general district and juvenile and domestic relations courts, it also includes most of the Clerk of Court’s office, including the space in the rear of the building where the deed books — one of the most used elements of the courts system — are kept.)

Besides being pleased that supervisors have bowed to the inevitable, I’ll admit to being frankly a little surprised. Given their longstanding, duck-and-cover pattern of behavior when it comes to building maintenance, one might have guessed that the board would have chosen one of either the two cheapest options, both costing around $1.2 million, for repairing the annex. Fortunately, the building contractor, Blair Construction, joined by the county’s architect, CMJW, affixed a flashing warning signal in their guidance to supervisors. Board members were presented with a written explanation of each of the four options for action: Option 1 — which called for reinforcing the building framework with steel or concrete and patching up damaged concrete slabs — came with this cautionary note: “This option is most unknown.” Hey, it’s almost Halloween. Who’s afraid of a little cracked concrete?

As mentioned previously, supervisors haven’t even yet entered the real house of horrors, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s building, which currently comes affixed with a renovation plan but not a contractor. (Blair Construction is handling the main renovation project, which encompasses the historic courthouse building, the annex and the now-demolished old county jail. Supervisors have settled on a separate plan for renovating the CA’s office but the selection of a general contractor remains pending.) If there’s a real lesson here, it’s cheap isn’t always best, or even tenable. Also, this problem is bigger than simply the courthouse (high school cough cough). Twenty million dollars is indeed a lot of money. By the same token, fifty-plus years is a long time (oh how I know.) Expressed in terms not of construction or reconstruction but deferred maintenance over an extended period of time, it’s hard to know whether Halifax County is really paying a steep price on the courthouse.

The same will be inevitably true when we get around to fixing HCHS, as we almost must. Spread the borrowing costs over a few decades, stop scrimping on annual maintenance, and 30 or 40 years from now our successors won’t have to deal with our present-day problems. It seems like the least we can do for sake of the future.

***
This week the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried an editorial by the publisher, Tom Silverstri, announcing that the paper will no longer endorse political candidates (once this coming election is over) in the pages of what has long been one of Virginia’s most influential papers. Wow. I’m old enough to remember when the Times-Dispatch and its afternoon sister publication, the News-Leader, were fire-eating champions of Massive Resistance and any members of the political class, Democrat or Republican, who upheld that ignoble cause. I guess some things really do change in life.

Considering I’ve always thought the R T-D editorial page is horrendous, a veritable sinkhole of straw man argumentation and baseless political attacks, you might think this latest development in the Virginia news business would be heartedly welcomed. It’s not. The T-D’s approach strikes me as retrenchment — an unwillingness to take a stand, which is something we need more of from institutions to which people turn for their news, not less.

I don’t know what the T-D is thinking — Silvestri’s argument basically is that readers don’t distinguish between the front page and the editorial page, and besides, everyone gets their daily helping of ideological comfort food on the internet anyway— but this decision is surprising inasmuch as the most lively read in the increasingly moribund T-D remains Jeff Shapiro’s columns on Virginia politics. You don’t always have to agree with Shapiro’s point of view to acknowledge he’s a terrific writer and thinker, a columnist who crafts his pieces around reporting and fact, not horse hockey and cant. How the Times-Dispatch can swear off a longstanding fixture of political commentary on the one end and lean on the form for a good portion of its readership on the other (even if they get the balance between Shapiro’s excellence and the awfulness of the daily editorial page correct) is a mystery of the sort that probably only a newspaper publisher can answer.

On a related subject, we enjoy hearing opposing points of view. The value of free expression lies in the fact that arguing and fighting over points of debate usually offers the best, if not the neatest, route to the truth. (And compromise.) That said, we also feel an obligation in this business to raise our voice whenever something said is plainly false. It’s something we prefer to limit to people in positions of authority, on the theory that (1) they really oughta know better and probably do, and (2) punching up is generally okay, whereas punching down is something to best avoid.

But not always. On the facing page, Dr. Gerald Burnett has penned a Viewpoint letter which is … how shall we say it? … a pecan or two short of bugnuts crazy. Arguing for voting a straight-up Republican ticket, the good doctor offers the following rationale among others: because Democrats will “[c]ontinue to attack our religious freedom in favor of Islam.” Look, I get it: the President of the United States is a shameless liar, full of fairy tales about a middle-class tax cut that Congress will pass in next two weeks while members are out of session, and caravans of Middle Eastern terrorists attacking our southern border, probably with suitcase nukes or whatnot. By the standards set by Donald Trump, his supporters are the league with Honest Abe Lincoln.

But does no one actually read the news these days? Trump and his feckless son-in-law have spent the past month providing cover for the government of Saudi Arabia, which almost surely issued orders for the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, Virginia resident and Middle East pro-democracy advocate who died inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. According to the Turkish government, a 15-member Saudi kill team cut off Khashoggi’s fingers, beheaded him, sawed up the body and then ferreted the remains away in secret. What has our Islamofascist-fighting Commander-in-Chief done about this outrageous crime and insult to the United States? Aside from probably checking his bank account to make sure funds are continuing to roll in from the venal and corrupt House of Saud, not a damned thing. Seriously, if you want to slam Democrats, go ahead, it’s a free country and all. But wild accusations in the face of Donald Trump’s providing aid and comfort to a regime that has done as much as any on Earth to spread radical Islam (also home to 15 of the 19 terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks) is a bit much. We don’t plan to get all Polifact.com with our Viewpoint letters, but c’mon.





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