Citizens get their say regarding County Courthouse

By Melissa Rollins, Editor,

Darlington County residents got the chance to voice their opinions on what should happen to the County Courthouse at a series of listening sessions held around the county last week.

The final two sessions – held at the Music Hall on Harry Byrd Highway and in the Fifth Floor Courtroom of the Darlington County Courthouse – drew dozens of citizens and garnered their input on whether the county should invest in building a new courthouse, rehabilitate the current building, or stand pat and leave the building as-is.

At these sessions, facilitators Charles Weathers and Betty Parker from the Weathers Group of Columbia asked the audience for pros and cons regarding each option, and polled them on preferred methods for financing any potential building or repair projects.

As the meetings went on, the “cons” list for leaving the courthouse as-is grew longer and longer, with guests citing numerous concerns like poor security for judges and others involved with court proceedings, issues with the heating and cooling systems, mold and moisture problems, lack of space for offices and records, parking, and the general consensus that the building is unattractive.

Many of these concerns also transferred over to the “repair it” list, with attendees citing a common worry that while remodeling would be cheaper than building a new facility, those repairs might just be a spot fix that future needs could quickly outgrow.

The “pros” column for building a new courthouse and/or administrative facility included items cited by numerous guests, such as the ability to plan a state-of-the-art building with future needs (like expanded office space, parking, and security) in mind. Several guests also noted that an attractive new courthouse – one more in keeping with the city’s historic character – could draw more economic investment to downtown Darlington, should the county choose to build on the adjacent Public Square properties it acquired over the past few years.

When discussion turned to money, County Administrator Charles Stewart said that the county has two viable options for financing a new building – which could potentially cost $30 to $40 million – or making repairs to the current courthouse, which could cost upwards of $8 million.

“The two most obvious means are property taxes, or a one-cent local option sales tax in addition to what’s already in place,” said Stewart, adding that he was open to suggestions for other revenue means that could finance a capital project of this scale.

He explained that securing bonds to pay for the project would require either the levy of an additional penny sales tax county-wide, bringing our total sales tax to 9-cents on the dollar, or raising property tax millage, which would place the burden solely on property owners. Several audience members balked at the idea that only property owners should contribute to the courthouse project, and some noted that at least a sales tax would spread the burden in a more egalitarian manner.

Stewart added that if Council wishes to raise property tax millage or pursue an additional penny sales tax, these options would require approval by public referendum in the 2018 general election, and voters would decide the matter at the polls.

Should Council decide to repair the current building, Stewart said the county might opt to borrow against its debt limit (which is 8 percent of the county’s assessed value), and that would give them a maximum of $12 or $13 million to work with.

At the conclusion of the final listening session, Weathers said his firm would consolidate all the public input they received and provide it to County Council.

Author: Duane Childers

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