STAUNTON (AP) The Augusta County courthouse needs serious rehabilitation, and now so does the relationship between the local governments trying to get it fixed.
The courthouse is a historic seat of the county government and a landmark of downtown Staunton that predates the existence of the city and even the nation.
But as the building that is the official seat of the county government turned 100 recently, its disrepair became a potential financial hazard for both city and county.
The Augusta and Staunton governments worked cordially for more than a decade to work out a future for the building and the all-important judicial functions it continues to house.
But pressure from a local judge led to a meeting this week that greatly magnified a sticking point on money that abruptly soured the talks between the city and county. Following the meeting, the city sent a delegation across the street from City Hall for a meeting with the media that destroyed almost all the goodwill left between the two sides.
Now the county is planning a voter referendum in November on moving its seat and its courts out of Staunton. In the coming months, tens of millions of dollars in public money and the fate of a city downtown landmark hang in the balance of a broken relationship between municipal neighbors.
A recent study priced the renovation of the circuit courthouse at about $10 million. For the economic benefits the city gets from the presence of county employees and court activity, members of the Board of Supervisors think the city should help with the cost, said Chairman Michael Shull.
“We feel like with the revenues they’re generating off of food and parking, the different things that come up from the citizens of the county, we need try to work a little bit closer together (on the bill),” Shull said.
Mayor Carolyn Dull offered high praise for the historical and aesthetic value of the courthouse building, but said Staunton’s taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay to renovate county property, especially with big educational and infrastructure needs on the city’s horizon.
“I think it would be hard to explain to Staunton residents that we’re taking your tax dollars and putting it into a county building that we don’t use (and) can’t use,” Dull said.
The courthouse has been the Augusta County seat since the first circuit court was built at the corner of East Johnson and West Augusta streets — a log cabin erected at that spot in 1745.
The current building, the fifth courthouse on the lot, was completed in 1901. It was designed by T.J. Collins, the acclaimed architect who designed many of downtown Staunton’s most famous structures.
During the late 1980s, as it approached the century mark, the county had designs for moving all its operations to Verona, but chose to kept the judicial complex in Staunton.
Judge Victor Ludwig, the presiding judge in the circuit, recently urged the county to address the building’s needs. Among the building’s many problems are an obsolete layout that’s not secure enough for court functions, and wiring too antiquated for modern needs.
Staunton officials blame the county for allowing what they call a historic treasure to fall into disrepair.
“We want it to stay in the city,” said City Manager Steve Owen, “but we’re not responsible for the fact that they’ve deferred maintenance on it. It is falling apart. There are pieces of the building in the basement that have fallen off the building.”
Shull said the county put off maintenance on the building just as it has its aging school buildings and infrastructure, reflecting maintenance backlogs around the nation.
“It’s been like kicking the can down the road in order to meet budget — as long as it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
By 2012, the county approached Staunton with a study by local planning and architectural firm Frazier Associates that offered a $10 million estimate for renovations. The county asked for financial help from Staunton, but received only an offer to consider it.
Supervisor David Karaffa, who has studied the needs of the courthouse property for years along with Shull, thinks the county will have to spend more than what’s needed for the circuit court if the complex remains in Staunton. There are space needs elsewhere downtown, Karaffa said.
“What’s needed for juvenile and domestic relations and general district is not wrapped up in the (Frazier estimate),” he said.
The plan to incorporate the judicial complex at the Government Center, a plan that’s been sketched out for decades, is still listed in the county’s long-term building and maintenance goals. The cost is estimated at $39 million.
Supervisors entertained the idea of putting the renovation/relocation option before voters on the last general election ballot in November, but decided to see if they could work out a deal to share rehab costs with Staunton.
Ludwig urged a resolution in the matter, County Administrator Pat Coffield said, resulting in the meeting between the two sides Wednesday.
Several supervisors had already stated that any renovation to keep the courthouse downtown would require substantial city dollars since Staunton gains all the benefits from the location, they said.
Coffield offered three options for sharing the costs of borrowing the needed $10 million:
— 50 percent for Staunton, which would cost about $275,000 per year to pay back in 30 years
— 33 percent for the city at $183,000 per year for the city
— 25 percent for Staunton financed at $137,000 annually.
A half-half share option had the support of a strong majority of supervisors. Twenty-five percent, which the board considered minimal, may or may not fly, Coffield said Friday.
The meeting Wednesday inside a City Hall conference room was cordial, by all reports. Dull, Walter Obenschain and Finance Director Jeanne Colvin represented Staunton.
Shull, Larry Wills and Coffield sat for the county. Because neither side had a quorum of elected leaders, their negotiations didn’t have to be public.
The city offered help with state and federal grants and tax credits, an area to stage construction, free parking for employees and visitors and funding for a historically-matching exterior. The exterior expense was estimated at $110,000. There would, however, be no further sharing of construction costs or loan debt.
County officials asked for dollar equivalents for what Staunton was offering, and city leaders agreed to get its professional staff to work on those calculations. After about an hour, the two sides parted ways.
That night, Coffield presented the city’s offer behind closed doors after the board’s regular meeting. Supervisors were stunned.
To county officials, Staunton’s proposed assistance consisted of a bunch of ideas and not nearly enough cash.
“We think it’s all smoke and mirrors,” Coffield said.
Wednesday night, he sent a simple email to Owen thanking the council for their offer and informing him that supervisors had instructed him to plan for a referendum.
When councilors learned that, they were shocked. The negotiations were over?
“It’s so disappointing because, I really left that meeting thinking that they wanted some additional figures,” Dull said. “It seemed to me that we’d be meeting again to discuss the results of that.”
With what they considered the end of the discussions over the courthouse, the city delegation contacted The News Leader on Friday morning and asked to meet with the editorial board without disclosing ahead of time what the subject would be.
They walked down Beverley Street and a block up Central Avenue to the newspaper offices. When they sat down with newspaper staff, they made no attempt to conceal the motive for the unannounced plan to disclose the content of what had been private negotiations. They wanted to get their side of the story out first.
“We decided to come talk to you before they did,” Owen said.
After The News Leader story went online, county officials began fielding media calls about what they thought were private talks. Coffield thought the disclosure was a breach of confidential discussions between neighbors that spoiled government leaders’ relationship beyond what the previous days’ offer had.
Dull doesn’t think the county should so easily dismiss the tax credits and grants available for the renovation. Government money and credits could knock almost half the cost off the project, she said.
County leaders say those applications could take years to turn into money for construction. They don’t have that kind of time, and what if they’re not approved, they said.
Shull said the county would come back to the negotiating table if Staunton could guarantee in writing that its assistance could cover at least 25 percent of the renovation expense.
“If they move in that aspect, then we can do some more negotiating,” he said.
Staunton has used public money for development projects before. The city paid $15 million as part of a land-swap deal with Western State Hospital. Staunton got control of development acreage, and the money went toward construction of the new hospital complex.
The city also contributed $10.6 million in a private-public partnership to develop the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and another $500,000 toward the development of the Blackfriars Playhouse next door.
Dull said the investment amount Staunton has offered for the circuit court is fair for the city’s interests.
“We’ve assessed the benefits of investing in the courthouse, and the offer we presented the county reflects that assessment,” she said.
The city and county have worked together on courthouse issues. In 2003, they reached a formal agreement to make improvements to the circuit court and the juvenile and domestic relations court they share in the county building across the street. The county put more than $1 million into improvements for both.
The judicial complex is home to 47 county employees, 18 of whom work in the circuit court building. Owen said the tax contribution from the buildings brings in $15,000 per year.
County leaders say the revenues from the activity and visitorship account for much more, and they’d be eager to channel that money into Augusta’s treasury with a move to the Government Center.
While the county has provided packages of tax incentives to lure and keep its businesses, Augusta hasn’t been nearly as adventurous in doling out cash for development as Staunton has.
Asked if they’d be willing to vote to pay half the construction cost of a public or private entity threatening to leave without it, Shull said he probably wouldn’t.
Karaffa declined comment.
— CALVIN TRICE, The News Leader
Information from: The News Leader, http://www.newsleader.com