Council talks courthouse repairs
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Darlington County Council convened a work session August 29 at the Pee Dee Council of Governments, where a main topic of discussion was the future of the county courthouse.
Facilitator Charles Weathers Sr., founder and CEO of Columbia-based management consulting firm The Weathers Group, led the session. He encouraged Council members to make a priority list of issues – both near-term and long-term – that they need to address. Though the rankings of these priorities varied, all members present listed the aging Darlington County Courthouse as a project that requires action.
County Administrator Charles Stewart said that the Courthouse Construction Advisory Committee has met several times and is waiting for Council to provide some guidelines for exactly how much money the county can commit to building a new facility or repairing the existing 1965 building.
Stewart said the courthouse has a number of security issues, including a lack of a secure prisoner transfer area (like an enclosed sally port) on the Public Square, no private entrance or elevator for judges, and too little space for some court operations.
Council member Bobby Kilgo said that when the courthouse was built, there were many more terms of criminal and civil court in the large 5th floor courtroom. He said that due to the prevalence of pleas, dismissals, settlements, and mediation, the need for jury trial sessions has greatly diminished over the past fifty years, and perhaps that spacious courtroom could be pared down to yield more space for other needs.
“The need for a large courtroom for civil court is basically almost over with,” said Kilgo, adding that there have only been two criminal trials held in the main courtroom this year.
Kilgo said the county should consider allocating more space and resources for the busiest court operations, like Probate Court, Magistrate Court, and Family Court. Kilgo said that need for more private spaces to keep Family Court litigants apart is especially urgent because that court often handles emotional and contentious matters like child custody.
“That is also the most dangerous court you will go into because of the animosity between the parties,” Kilgo said. “If any court needs to be secure, it’s Family Court.”
Stewart said that in addition to improved security, the courthouse HVAC system needs work, and reallocating space would require additional expenditures. Kilgo said that some operations – such as the Solicitor’s Office and the Veteran’s Affairs Office – have plans or are willing to relocate outside the courthouse, which could free up space on the 4th and 3rd floor.
“In some peoples’ perspective, all this can be addressed with the current building with modifications,” said Stewart. “In other peoples’ perspective, that’s a waste of money and we need to go with another building. I think both options are viable, depending on how much money you want to spend.”
Cost estimates for a new courthouse range between $30 and $40 million, while rehabbing the current building could cost $8 or $9 million, according to Stewart’s estimate.
Council member Le Flowers said that he would be willing to vote for a courthouse rehab plan with costs of $14 million or less, allowing the county to stay within its $17 million General Obligation Bond debt limit. This option would require only a majority vote from Council, and would avoid asking voters to consider another penny sales tax (through a Special Projects Sales Tax referendum) to pay for a new courthouse.
Stewart and Council agreed to set up a series of five “town hall” meetings to gauge public opinion about the courthouse options. Scheduling and location of these meetings is yet to be determined.