On Monday, Transylvanian County commissioners backed the use of the Board of Elections boardroom as a second temporary courtroom to assist in jury-less court cases in the short term.
The second courtroom at the current courthouse has not been used for nearly two years, with court officials saying it is too small and dangerous. This, along with the impact of COVID-19, has created a backlog of cases that court officials are asking commissioners to help resolve.
At their regular meeting on Monday, however, the Commissioners indicated that they wanted more time to find a ‘mid-term’ solution on a second courtroom space, as it would take around three years after the decision is made. to build a new courthouse.
The commissioners also said the construction of a new courthouse was a “top priority”. The length of time that the Election Office will be used as a second courtroom will depend on the location and the timeline for the mid-term site renovation.
For a mid-term site, court officials gave “basic” space requirements, including courtroom seating for about 100 people, jury room with toilets, staff toilets, inmates with washrooms, space for lawyers to meet and clients, separate entrances for court officials and the public, and proximity to the current courthouse.
The site should have at least 5,000 square feet to meet these needs. As previously reported, the old Kmart Building, Masonic Lodge, and Legion Building have been eliminated as options.
Additionally, as previously noted, the current rental rate for space, including fit-up costs, is $ 10 to $ 12 per year per square foot, resulting in an annual rental cost of $ 50,000 to $ 60,000. $. The estimated renovation costs are around $ 1 million, but they can vary by site, with headroom and roof span being among the issues.
A property identified for sale would cost $ 550,000, with preliminary renovation estimates at $ 975,000. To refine the cost estimates, this option, which has not been publicly identified, would require a purchase contract and approval for more detailed drawings.
On Monday, commissioners dismissed as inappropriate two other short-term options, the Rogow Room in the library and the Commissioners’ Chambers in the County Administrative Building.
Before the commissioners make their decision, County Director Jaime Laughter reviewed the options. She said the three would, for one, have an impact on parking.
Commission Chairman Jason Chappell said any decision would have a “domino effect,” affecting county operations and the groups that might use the spaces.
Laughter highlighted the downsides of each option:
• Commission chambers have seen increased use, including advisory committees and others, such as Brevard City Council, using the space to live stream meetings.
• Rogow Room may not be optimal due to proximity to the New Adventure Learning Center and children using the library, and this may disrupt library events.
• The election conference room is largely available, but scheduling the hearings would require moving the advance voting during the election season either to the conference room in the community services building or to the Rogow room, which was previously in use. for the vote.
Commissioner Larry Chapman said “neither is a good solution”, but supported the boardroom of the elections office because it would be the “cheapest”. He also believed that the election office would be the best medium-term solution during the construction of a new courthouse.
Chappell pointed to the former county administration offices next to the main courthouse building, which currently serves as a temporary site for the Carolinas Veterans History Museum, as a possible medium-term solution. The proximity to the old administrative site and the costs of existing utilities would make this site “more desirable from an operational impact perspective,” according to a memo from county staff to the commissioners.
Chapman, who sits on the museum’s board, did not support spending money on the old administration offices, saying it had nothing to do with his support for the museum.
Commissioners Jake Dalton and Teresa McCall also supported the use of the Election Office conference room as a short-term venue. McCall said the conference hall is not used much and it would be “easier to move” the advance poll – for which the conference hall is used – to another site.
Chapman asked what the costs would be for the election office to be the mid-term location until a new courthouse is built.
Laughter said staff did not assess the renovation of the elections office to meet the courts’ minimum requirements as a mid-term site.
Commissioner David Guice did not believe it would work as a location in the medium term, noting the inadequate parking and, on the one hand, the large number of people who usually appear in district court.
Chappell said if the county searches for the old administrative offices as a mid-term location, the museum may move to the old elections office across from the library, where the Family Resource Center is currently located. The center is currently not being used to its full capacity, as was originally planned, officials said.
On March 8, the commissioners approved the drafting of an agreement, adding two years to the museum’s lease for the old administrative offices and extending the lease termination clause from 30 days to six months. The current lease ends on June 30. The museum currently pays $ 625 per month to use the building to offset utility expenses.
Guice said he supported helping the museum find another site.
McCall said the county should consider “all options” for a mid-term site. She doesn’t want the county to lose the museum, noting the “great job” it does in the community. Like Chappell, McCall suggested the former election office as a possible site for the museum.
Chapman said he wanted to see the financial costs of using the election office or old administrative offices as a medium-term solution.
Guice said it would take “millions” to convert the election office and meet basic demands of the courts.
Instead, he supported the review of the old administration offices, while noting that the county was not receiving rental money from the museum.
Staff reassessed the expansion in the old administration building, with updated architectural designs including a 70-seat courtroom and an 88-seat courtroom, and a probable cost of $ 1.25 million. dollars to $ 1.5 million.
Chapman said the old administration offices were empty until the museum arrived. and museum officials have made some improvements to the building. He said the museum has been visited by around 17,000 people since it opened and is currently looking for a permanent site. The “last thing” his supporters want is for him to leave the county, but he could do so if no site is found, Chapman suggested.
At the meeting, court clerk Kristi Brown indicated that she supported the short-term use of the election office conference room.
She said there would be no jury trial in the room and court officials would not need much renovation. She also indicated that her office did not want to have an undue impact on the staff of the election office. Brown was concerned about noise issues when the court sits if major renovations are being done to the old administration offices. The court comes to a halt, she said, when a fire engine passes by.
Brown reminded commissioners that having a second courtroom still wouldn’t solve the “bigger” issues of the current courthouse, such as security and ADA compliance. She also said she had documents which showed that the courthouse and capital needs were being discussed as early as 1995. She indicated that she did not care where a new courthouse was being built just that. happen.
Justice Mack Brittain also addressed the Commissioners.
In 2019, Brittain informed the county that he would “no longer assign district court judges to the conduct of hearings in the small courtroom to the extent possible” due to insufficient space in the courtroom, overcrowding, noise and interruptions, mold issues during the warmer months, the lack of a reliable heating system during the cold months and a concern for the safety of all who use courthouse.
Even though the smaller courtroom was enlarged slightly, as Guice suggested, Brittain said he would not assign judges there for security reasons, which is the “biggest problem” in general. , with the courthouse, he said.
Often, on the one hand, lawyers, judges, other justice officials, defendants and victims share the same corridor.
At the elections office, in the short term, Brittain plans to hold a court on Tuesdays and Thursdays and limit the number of defendants to 30 or 40 per day.
On Monday, the commissioners were also due to discuss the contract to use the lease with the museum.
Commissioners agreed to postpone the matter until more information on possible medium-term solutions, including the former administration offices, is provided.