[Masthead] A Few Clouds ~ 63°F  
High: 80°F ~ Low: 64°F
Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

Committee hears about judicial space needs

Friday, November 23, 2007

(Photo)
Space was at such a premium in Bedford County Courthouse on Tuesday that General Sessions Court had to hold a civil court session in the corridor of the courthouse basement, leading one attorney to joke about "the halls of justice." County officials are discussing a number of possibilities for alleviating the situation in the long term, such as building a new jail and justice center or adapting a existing building to house courtrooms and judicial offices.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
If you thought it was easy to be an elected official, think again.

Bedford County Board of Commissioners' courthouse and county property committee is beset on all sides:

* A number of county offices and departments say they need more space, and the judicial system needs better security;

* The county has vacant property and vacant or soon-to-be vacant buildings that could, in theory, be adapted to provide some of that space, but

* Attorneys and merchants don't want the county to move any of its operations away from the square, and none of the county's excess property is near the square;

* Buying and building near the square could conceivably be more expensive than using the property the county already owns, which could anger taxpayers.

The problem was highlighted Tuesday night as the committee continued its discussion of space needs. Circuit Judge Lee Russell and a number of attorneys were present Tuesday night to discuss the court system's space needs. Before they could even speak, however, Chairman Phillip Vincent outlined the problems for them and said that the committee already understands the need for more space. What the committee needs from the judicial system is information -- about what square footage and what individual facilities are needed.

Russell said that the judicial system needs two jury trial courtrooms.

Attorney Jason Reeves said he's spoken to many of his peers and colleagues, and their primary concern is security, followed by the need for more space, and, third, the need to keep the judicial system near the square if possible.

Attorney John Norton, however, was more forceful in talking about keeping the court system near the square. Norton said he borrowed and spent considerable money to renovate his offices on the square in the late 1980s, still has not paid for all of the work, and would be devastated if the judicial system were to move away.

"If you move the judicial business away from the square, my building -- and my 20 years of investment -- are gone," said Norton. But Norton also acknowledged that there's no way to retrofit the existing courthouse with adequate security features or to fit all of the needed courtroom space there.

"We need more security, and we need more space," he said.

Jeweler Wayne Hix, who owns several businesses on or near the square, said he depends on the traffic and visibility generated by the court system to drive customers into his shops. Not everyone shops on the same day they visit the courthouse, he said, but they see what's available and may return later.

Russell pointed out that many of those who use or visit the court system are innocent, upstanding citizens -- witnesses to a car wreck, for example, or parents accompanying their children to a divorce hearing.

Vincent, however, pointed out that there's no way to secure the existing building and that the judicial system has asked for one centralized location which would house all of the courts and court clerks. There are vacant lots near the square -- the owner of one such property attended Tuesday's meeting. But Vincent said economics might make it harder for the county to choose that option.

"What we are looking at is the taxpayers and their money," said Vincent. The county is also facing construction of a new jail and is in the middle of a 10-year school building program.

Vincent asked Russell to compile information about the needs of the judicial system, including courtrooms, conference rooms, and offices for Circuit Court Clerk Thomas Smith and Clerk and Master Pat Finney.

One way to lessen the financial impact of a building near the square might be to sell some of the county's excess property elsewhere.

The county has had inquiries about selling Bedford County Nursing Home, the soon-to-be-vacant Bedford County Medical Center building and the Medical Arts Building as a package, but commissioners refused earlier this month to even take bids because some, including Vincent, are strongly opposed to letting the nursing home become a for-profit facility.

"The nursing home is paying its own way," said Vincent Tuesday night.

Commissioner Linda Yockey, who made the original motion to take bids on the nursing home, said the commission's action was improper because the issue had been left off the published agenda but yet no motion was made to suspend the rules before voting on it. Yockey asked that her motion be placed back on the agenda for December. Yockey has said she isn't trying to immediately sell the nursing home but believes the county needs to know what it would bring on the open market.

"I feel like we owe the taxpayer the right to that information," said Yockey.

Commissioner Billy King said he voted against selling the county-owned hospital two years ago but that he believes the county needs to look at options for disposing of the soon-to-be-vacant building.

"We don't need liabilities," said King. King said the nursing home as a business is worth about $4 million based on the number of beds, but the county needs information about what the entire complex would bring if it were sold.

Yockey's motion to reconsider taking bids on the nursing home was approved by the committee to be placed on the full commission's December agenda.