Monday, June 18, 2012

The Courts Revisited

To date council has been exclusively focused on meeting the perceived needs of the courts in moving forward with the new courthouse. As with any decision there should have been consideration of other factor such as the building and operational costs and how they impact other city priorities, service, and city residents. In the case of the new courthouse there are issues of compatibility with the historic downtown and whether it will be a 21st century courthouse. It’s time to refocus on the big picture.

 The issue of cost has in part been decided when the council approved the sales of $36 million in bonds for the project. Some of these funds have now been spent to purchase property, to renovate space at the Executive Plaza for the Juvenile Domestic Relations Court (JDR), and demolition has commenced on the old JDR site for the new courthouse.  What remains to be decided is the size and scope of the project.  In making these decisions it will be important to look beyond just court needs.

This budget year the actual cost to the city for courts and jails is $7.2 million dollars. Next year the debt service on the courts will go up almost $1 million as the first payment is made that covers the debt principle. Operational cost of the court facility will go up. The amount of increase in building operations, maintenance, and personnel has yet to be considered. In recent conversations with state representative we know that the city cannot expect additional funding for either court construction or operational costs now and into the foreseeable future.

Fredericksburg already has the highest per capita cost for court operations for a city of our size. With no assistance forthcoming from the state, and no new local funds available, city residence will have to bear the cost. With plans to expand court facilities even further in the future we must consider whether the city can continue to bear this cost when you consider other priorities such as education, public safety, and the financial burden on city residents.

If Fredericksburg is looking at future courtroom expansion it should be expected that our two neighbors in the 15th Judicial District, which each currently have five time the city’s population and growing at a greater rate, are facing the same situation.  Understanding this dynamic discussion on the court project should be limited to short term needs. Meeting long-term court needs should be a regional discussion. So what should the city build now?

If completed as currently proposed we are looking at constructing a temporary JDR court, building four full sized court rooms each for the Circuit and District Courts. And finally the current General District court will be renovated as the new JDR court. The Renwick Courthouse will be left vacant. No new parking is included to support the new courthouse. The factors that drove this plan were case loads and the state Guidelines for New Court Construction. How valid are these factors?

The caseload projections used by the city show a continual increase in case loads looking as far out as 2030. It is acknowledged that projections beyond 5-years become less reliable due to the number of variables involved. Going out over 10 years becomes more a guess than a projection. In a June 2011 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report on surplus court space in the federal system one of the causes given was, “inaccurate caseload projections.”  It should also be understood that the projections for the city are being driven by regional growth. Fredericksburg is no longer the economic hub of the region which would call into question any long-term projections.

The GAO report is part of an almost decade long effort by the federal government to reduce court construction and operational costs. They are looking at shared court rooms, and reevaluating space needs in light of technological improvements.  In the current plan for the courts these options have not been considered.

In looking at the plans for two other court facilities in Virginia going back a number of years there are no significant change when compared to the court plans for Fredericksburg. They are all based on the standardized state Courthouse Construction Guidelines. Saving space by digitizing records or recognizing the move towards a paperless court system, or other options that are being implemented at the federal level, have not been considered.

Another consideration is when, and if, additional judges will be appointed by Richmond to fill the courtrooms currently planned. Right now the judges spend at least one day at other courts in the district. This is a question that needs to be addressed as part of the planning process.

While there seems to be agreement to reevaluate space usage there is some hesitance based on perceived opposition from judges and getting too far ahead of the courts in implementing the needed procedural changes that allows for maximum use of technology. We can ensure the courts are prepared for these changes or the city will be faced with costly retro-fits.  Right now the contract is rather vague on the level of technology to be installed.

Another factor yet to be discussed is the impact of this project on the city’s downtown.  The historic small town atmosphere of downtown is something our neighbor’s do not have  and ensuring a good visitor experience is extremely important as the region n continues to grow and the city’s role as regional economic hub diminishes.

The current design is 50+ feet in height, built to the sidewalks. It will be the largest building downtown. There is no room for any public space which is part of other court facilities through-out the state. The finishes of the structure will be castings and there will be very little variations in the structure. It will essentially be a brick box.  To be completed as planned will call for Special Use Permits and even Special Exceptions.

The Architectural Review Board (ARB) criticized the city for presenting them with no other option than what was presented understanding that council would overrule them if the scale and massing was not approved.   At its last meeting the ARB discussed rescinding its vote on the scale and massing. The Certificate of Appropriateness needed for the project has not been provided due to issues with the materials being used and with the lack of public space.

The current design is too big for the site. If we accept the projected court needs and space requirements, and want to achieve the original goal of consolidating court facilities it needs to be built elsewhere. In addition to size there is another issue which has been ignored and that is the projects impact on downtown parking.

The city’s incentives program is credited with bringing businesses downtown that are going to attract more visitors.  A recent survey of shop owners and downtown visitors ranked parking as one of the top four issues to be addressed to ensure a successful downtown. As we move forward with riverfront improvements more parking could be eliminated. So how do new court facilities impact downtown parking?

Between 415 and 434 parking spaces will be needed to support the new court facilities. To meet this need the plan is to continue to use off-street parking—242 spaces, and augment it by taking up  to 192 spaces in the parking garage.  As caseloads increase, the already limited parking options in the city will continue to worsen to the detriment of the downtown economy.

·         Understanding all the factors surrounding the courts project the following modifications should be considered:

·         Remove renovations for the General District Court (GDR) from the proposal.  The JDR court can stay in the Executive Plaza for the foreseeable future or use one of the court rooms in the new facility.

·         Reduce the number of court rooms in the new facility to no more than three.  Also reevaluate space usages with the stakeholders, looking to take advantage of technology and procedural changes being contemplated in the court system.

·         With savings from the elimination of the GDR renovations look to the possibility of addressing parking, renovations of the Renwick courthouse, excluded in the current plan, to include continuing its court function, or using them to pay down debt.

·         Begin discussions with neighboring jurisdictions to look at a regional approach to meet future court needs.

A number of issues remain that need to be addressed regarding the current courthouse proposal. And when addressed we can proceed with building a courthouse on the chosen site which compliments both the needs of the courts and the city.  And as it will be city residents who will bear the financial burden of this project they should be part of this discussion and kept informed of the deliberations.   

Do we proceed with the plan currently before us or do we revise it?

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