Two external factors — a judge’s order about court facilities and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic — loomed large as Columbus County commissioners met Monday evening to identify priorities for the upcoming budget year that starts July 1.
A reporter from this newspaper was the only member of the public to attend the nearly three-hour planning workshop held in the commissioners’ chambers. After enjoying a catered dinner, commissioners and senior administrators discussed a wide range of topics including county finances and budget requests submitted by county departments and the local school systems. But the topic that dominated the conversation was court facilities.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser has said the commissioners aren’t meeting their legal obligation to provide adequate court facilities, and on March 13 he ordered the board to send him a plan within 60 days.
Commissioner James Prevatte on Monday night shared with the board steps that the county is taking to address some of Sasser’s concerns. While a North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association assessment of local court facilities hasn’t been released yet, commissioners expect it to point out numerous deficiencies with the Dempsey B. Herring Courthouse Annex. In anticipation of the report, the county is making several improvements, including replacing downstairs courtroom windows with bricks, adding bulletproof glass to judges’ offices, updating security cameras and adding key cards on exterior doors, Prevatte said.
The county is also addressing problems in another judicial facility, the courthouse that was built in 2015. To correct humidity issues in the building, the county plans to install four dehumidifiers at a total cost of $185,000. The county is in litigation with the contractor who built the courthouse and hopes to recoup the cost of repairs. Crews have also added soundproofing in the jury rooms, and new doors have been ordered, Prevatte said. The county is also considering several options for how to add more legroom in the first row of the jury box, a problem apparently without an easy solution given the construction and layout of the courtroom.
However, an even more complicated issue for commissioners is the future of the historic courthouse. In January, the county signed a contract with Coastal Architects of Morehead City to create plans for demolishing the interior of the building, including ceilings and walls. County Manager Mike Stephens recommended in the meeting Monday that commissioners move forward with demolition, which could reveal any structural issues that would need to be addressed. That information could help the board decide how to use the building, Stephens said.
Commissioners are divided on what to do about the courthouse long term, and they didn’t come to a consensus in the workshop. Using the building for county offices is one option.
“County employees don’t want to go to the old courthouse,” said Commissioner Ricky Bullard. “They don’t want to work over there.”
Stephens echoed Bullard’s point, despite noting that county administration is cramped and lacking storage space in its current quarters.
“I’m not a big fan of going upstairs in the courthouse, but I’ll do what you tell me to,” Stephens said.
“I was hoping some historic society would come along and ask for it and we’d turn it over to them,” Commissioner Buddy Byrd said.
“I think we ought to see if the City of Whiteville would like to own it and give it to them,” Bullard said, suggesting the building could be used as a museum. “It’s in the City of Whiteville. It’s part of Whiteville’s heritage.”
Prevatte disagreed with Bullard’s suggestion. “That courthouse belongs to the people of Columbus County, not Whiteville, and it should stay part of Columbus County,” Prevatte said.
“I haven’t found anybody, except somebody right here in Whiteville, that wants us to spend any money [on the historic courthouse],” Byrd said. “Now, if they’re here in Whiteville, they do. But if they’re out in the rural [areas] they don’t.”
Bullard agreed. “It is a very controversial issue around the western end of the county,” he said. “They say ‘if y’all spend much money on that courthouse, we’re going to vote every one of you out.’”
Commissioner Charles McDowell said he wanted to see the costs associated with the different options. “I understand that some of you boys don’t want to save that building, but you’ve got to show me on paper where you’re going to save money” by not outfitting the building for some use. He also pointed out that the legislature’s budget, which remains in limbo based on the governor’s veto, included $2 million specifically for renovation of the historic courthouse.
A major task for the county over the next few months will be creating an annual budget to take effect July 1. Department heads have sent their budget requests to Finance Director Bobbie Faircloth, who, with County Manager Mike Stephens, is faced with culling the asks before presenting commissioners with a proposed balanced budget. The departments’ requests outpaced expected revenues by about $15 million, Faircloth said.
Several commissioners said they are unwilling to raise taxes, especially in light of the economic uncertainty posed by the coronavirus outbreak. Fairloth said she is already projecting that sales tax revenues will fall by two percent.
Stephens said tough decisions will have to be made. “I was a lot more optimistic with this budget in January than I am now because of the situation we’re in,” Stephens said. “People are out of work. Businesses are hurting right now in this county.”
In addition to economic conditions, a new self-imposed fund balance policy will also limit how much the county can spend in the next budget. While the county’s unrestricted fund balance is $28 million, commissioners have designated much of that money for specific purposes. They plan to use $12 million for school construction and $1.9 million, received through the sale of the former Georgia Pacific property, on renovating the historic courthouse. In July 2019, the board approved a policy stating that the fund balance must equal at least 20 percent of the annual budget. Given that policy, only $2 million remains in the fund balance that isn’t spoken for or reserved, Faircloth said.
Commissioners discussed the potential for giving county employees a raise and various options for doing so, including increasing all salaries by the same percentage or providing a relatively larger increase for lower paid workers. Several commissioners said they would like the county to eventually adopt a “step system” which would provide regular salary increases based on years of service and would help ensure that supervisors make an appropriate amount more than their subordinates.
- Several commissioners expressed opposition to the Columbus County Board of Education’s request for $1.5 million to demolish the campuses of Acme Delco Middle School, Guideway Elementary School and the Columbus Career and College Academy in Fair Bluff after those schools are closed this summer. Commissioners said some of the building could be used for other purposes, such as business incubators.
- Bullard asked Stephens to look into the feasibility of opening a garage to service and fuel county vehicles, an idea Bullard said would save money.
- Commissioners asked Prince, the county attorney, to confirm whether or not voters would have to approve a two-cent rescue tax increase that has been requested by the Columbus County Fire and Rescue Association. Prince said she would research the matter.
- Several commissioners said they are opposed to putting a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot given the economic uncertainty. The tax, which voters have rejected several times in recent years, would generate revenue for local schools and Southeastern Community College. ”We’re wasting our time again,” said Byrd.
- Commissioners identified five funding goals to forward to the state legislative delegation: a new sheriff’s office building, the historic courthouse, water infrastructure, safety and technology for schools and school system capital needs.