Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Courts, Round II

From the Moseley Report:

Analysis and Conclusions

Page 66--"City staff has indicated that a cost of more than about $30 million for new court facilities is not affordable for the City at this time. As a result, any of these three options are cost prohibitive."

Page 67 -- "Only Princess Anne Street Option C (Rebuild on the JDR site) meets all of the criteria detailed in the table above at an initial cost that is affordable."

From the City Manager’s cover letter to the 2009 budget:

“…the outlook for FY 2010 is extremely difficult. The City continues to call upon its dwindling fund balance reserves, while at the same time the construction of the Court complex, the expansion of the Rappahannock Regional Jail, cost inflation, and deferred maintenance items creates additional pressure to raise expenditure levels just to maintain consistent service levels. The City will not be able to use its fund balance reserves in a significant way to construct the FY 2010 budget. Without significant new revenue growth, the current austerity climate for the City will continue for at least the next two or three years.”

The Moseley Report was released in August 2007 and the Manager’s letter was written in July 2008-- Both before the meltdown of the economy. If the city couldn’t afford more than $30 million dollars for a court facility before the recession why are we talking about $50 + million to build the facility now?

The answer till recently was that if we didn’t do it the judges would order the City to build the facility. We would then loose control of the project and the judges would run up the cost and we would be paying even more. Frankly, this statement does a diservice to our judges by impling that they would inflate the cost of the project. This view is also not correct.

I have linked to the state code section relating to the judges’ authority in ordering court repairs (15.2-1643). The optimum word is repair—not build. Even if the judges ordered the city to address the courts current security and space needs the City Council can appoint a (5) member panel, including three architects, to review the courts needs and make recommendations to address them. A Circuit Court judge appointed by the Supreme Court then makes a decision based on that report. The code specifically states that a locality cannot be ordered to build new facilities unless recommended by the panel.

In reviewing the cases where localities were ordered by the courts to address inadequate facilities—Richmond, Lexington, Surry County, and Portsmouth—all maintained or have maintained control of the project. Time lines were established to complete work and as a member of Council pointed out that could mean losing control of the project. It’s hard to believe that we can be made to proceed any faster than we already are at this point.

At the last City Council meeting it was pointed out that since 1974 the city had completed (20) + projects on the JDR court facility and just finished renovating the Circuit Court. This was not meant to show that the city has dealt with all the issues but rather to refute the comments made that we have ignored the courts. As problems have been brought to the city’s attention we have taken steps to deal with them.

Some pointed to the amount of work done on the courts as a justification for building a new facility now. That the courts have waited long enough. This position ignores the fact that it has only been in the last three years or so that the judges have begun the push for new facilities--As opposed to decades in the cases of Portsmouth, Lexington and Richmond. I’ve talked with a number of former Council members and Mayors and none remember the judges demanding new facilities.

This view also does not justify the current direction that the Council is moving. The Moseley report recommended other alternatives short of a $50 million + dollar court facility. As already noted the recommendation was to build on the current JDR site. We are required to address security concerns and current space needs not necessarily build a new court complex.

Another point made is that we must move forward because costs for the facility will continue to go up. Why didn’t we use this rationale to justify building the recreational facilities at Dixon Street all at once instead of in (3) phases? The answer--staff pointed out that to build the complex all at once was cost prohibitive. The cost of phase three was put in the area of $20 million. Cost is an issue but it must be looked at in the context of its impacts in other areas. City services for example.

Today we see businesses continue to close, property values are still dropping, and a jump in the unemployment rate. Revenues to the city will continue to drop and we are faced with the real possibility of reducing services. City school for example have taken a mid-year cut in state funding and looking at significant cuts in state funding next year. State funding to the city for such services as public safety are also being reduced. With our own declining revenues we are not in a position to make-up further cuts from the state nor maintain services without considering tax increases.

To try and minimize the financial impact of a new court facility staff has put together a plan that would hold off debt service payments until 2014, requiring tax increases in 2013, hoping that the economy will have turned around by then. Even if the economy turns around in two or three years our first priority should be to make up lost ground in areas such as public safety, services, and education--not taking on another $3 million a year in debt service for a new court facility. Such an increase in debt will preclude, and may even exacerbate, our ability to provide services.

When we embarked on the building of the schools we had a good reserve, and all indicators regarding revenue showed that we could move forward on these projects. The one caveat that staff made was that the city could not take on any more significant projects over the next few years. The economic situation today is far worse yet Council seems prepared to continue to move forward on a $50 + million project not because we have established that we can afford it but rather because to stop now, "would be based on an incomplete picture."

The reality is that the courts have issues that need to be addressed. However, the current economic picture clearly illustrates that the city cannot afford the current option being considered by City Council. As noted, both City staff and Moseley Architects made this point even before we entered the current recession. It should be understood that any option considered under the economic situation we face would come at a cost. But we must pick an option that looks beyond just the needs of the court and give at least equal weight to the needs of city residents.

The economic picture has radically changed since the city embarked on looking at new court facilities. Is it time to review other options?


Larry G said...

We have a Regional Jail and Library system.

Is that an option that could be considered?

Rodger Provo said...

Williamsburg and James City County
operate a joint court system.

MATT KELLY said...

When we started these discussions I had some preliminary conversations about a joint court facility with my counterparts in Stafford and Spotsy and at the time both localities were planning facilities of their own and there was no interest expressed. Spotsy is about to start their project but Stafford has put theirs on hold. Need willing partners for such an endeavor. Then comes the discussion on where it will be located, how much, and who pays what. I’m not dismissing the idea only pointing out there is a lot of cooperation necessary to make such an effort work. Such cooperation would require a change in mind set in this region.