On Monday, Transylvania County Commissioners supported, on a short-term basis, the use of the Board of Elections conference room as a second temporary courtroom to assist in non-jury court cases.
The second courtroom in the current courthouse has not been used for nearly two years, with court officials saying it is too small and unsafe. 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 said they wanted more time to find a ‘medium-term’ solution on a second courtroom space, as it would take around three years once the decision is made. to build a new courthouse.
The commissioners also said the construction of a new courthouse is a “top priority”. The length of time the Elections Office will be used as a second courtroom will depend on the location and timing of mid-term site renovations.
For a medium-term site, court officials gave “basic” space requirements, including seating for approximately 100 people in the courtroom, a jury room with toilets, staff toilets , an inmate with restrooms, space for lawyers to meet and clients, separate entrances for court officials and the public, and proximity to the current courthouse.
The site should be 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.
Also, as noted earlier, the going rate to lease space, including fit-up costs, is $10 to $12 per year per square foot, resulting in an annual lease cost of $50,000 to $60,000. Estimated renovation costs are around $1 million, but may vary by site, with free space and roof span being some of the issues.
A property identified for sale would cost $550,000, with preliminary renovation estimates at $975,000. To refine cost estimates, this option, which has not been publicly identified, would require a purchase contract and approval of more detailed drawings.
On Monday, the commissioners rejected as unsuitable two other short-term options, the library’s Rogow Hall and the commissioners’ rooms in the county administration building.
Before the commissioners made their decision, County Manager Jaime Laughter went over 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”, impacting county operations and the groups likely to use the spaces.
Laughter highlighted the downsides of each option:
• Commission rooms have been increasingly used, including advisory committees and others, such as Brevard City Council, using the space to live stream meetings.
• The Rogow Room may not be optimal due to the proximity of the new Adventure Learning Center and children using the library, and this could disrupt library events.
• The Elections Conference Room is primarily available, but the scheduling of hearings would necessitate moving early voting during election season to either the Community Services Building Conference Room or Rogow Room, which was previously used for voting .
Commissioner Larry Chapman said “there are no good solutions”, but he backed the boardroom in the elections office because it would be the “least expensive”. He also believed that the Elections Office would be the best medium-term solution while a new courthouse was being built.
Chappell pointed to, as a possible medium-term solution, the former county administration offices next to the main courthouse building, which currently serves as the temporary site for the Carolinas Veterans History Museum. Proximity to the former 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 commissioners.
Chapman, who sits on the museum’s board, did not support the idea of spending money on the old administrative offices, saying it had nothing to do with his support of the museum.
Commissioners Jake Dalton and Teresa McCall also supported the use of the Election Office conference room as a short-term location. McCall said the conference room was not used much and it would be “easier to move” early voting – for which the conference room is used – to another site.
Chapman asked what the costs would be for the elections office to be the midpoint location until a new courthouse is built.
Laughter said staff had not assessed the refurbishment of the elections office to meet the court’s minimum requirements as a medium-term site.
Commissioner David Guice did not think it would work as a medium-term location, noting the inadequate parking and, for his part, the large number of people who usually appear in district court.
Chappell said if the county pursues the old administrative offices as a medium-term location, the museum could move into the old election office across from the library, where the family resource center is currently located. The center is currently not being used to full capacity, as originally planned, officials said.
On March 8, the commissioners approved the drafting of an agreement, adding two years to the museum’s lease of the former administrative offices and extending the termination clause in the lease from 30 days’ notice to six months. The current lease ends June 30. The museum currently pays $625 per month to use the building to offset utility expenses.
Guice said he supports helping the museum find another site.
McCall said the county should look at “all options” for a medium-term site. She doesn’t want the county to lose the museum, noting “the great work” being done in the community. Like Chappell, McCall suggested the former Elections Office as a possible site for the museum.
Chapman said he wanted to see the financial costs of having the elections office or former administration offices serve as a medium-term solution.
Guice said it would take “millions” to convert the elections office and meet basic court requirements.
He instead supported reviewing the old administration offices, while noting that the county received no rental money from the museum.
Staff reassessed the expansion of the old administration building, with updated architectural drawings including a 70-seat courtroom and an 88-seat courtroom, and a likely cost of 1.25 to 1 .5 million dollars.
Chapman said the old administration offices stood empty until the museum arrived. and museum officials have made some improvements to the building. He said the museum had been visited by around 17,000 people since it opened and was currently looking for a permanent site. The “last thing” his supporters want is for him to leave the county, but he might if a site isn’t found, Chapman suggested.
At the meeting, court clerk Kristi Brown indicated her support for the short-term use of the election office conference room.
She said there would be no jury trials in the room and court officials did not need much renovation work. She also indicated that her office did not want to have an undue impact on election office staff. Brown was concerned about noise issues when the court is in session if major renovations are carried out at the former administration offices. The yard comes to a halt, she says, when a fire truck passes.
Brown reminded commissioners that having a second courtroom still wouldn’t solve the “bigger” issues of the current courthouse, such as safety and security and ADA compliance. She also said she had documents that showed the courthouse and capital requirements were being discussed as early as 1995. She indicated that she did not care where a new courthouse had been. built, just that it had happened.
Judge Mack Brittain also addressed the commissioners.
In 2019, Brittain informed the county that it would “no longer be assigning district court judges, where possible, to hold hearings in the Small Courtroom” due to insufficient space in the courtroom. courtroom, overcrowding, noise and interruptions, mold problems in the warmer months, lack of a reliable heating system in the cold months, and concern for the safety of all who use the courthouse.
Even if the smaller courtroom was slightly enlarged, as Guice suggested, Brittain said he would not assign judges there for security reasons, which is the “biggest problem”, in general , along with the courthouse, he said.
Often, on the one hand, lawyers, judges, other justice officials, defendants and victims share the same hallway.
In the elections office, in the short term, Brittain plans to hold the hearing 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 lease use agreement with the museum.
Commissioners agreed to defer the matter until more information on possible mid-term solutions, including former administration offices, is provided.