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Berkeley County debates need for judicial center

March 24, 2001

Berkeley County debates need for judicial center



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County Commissioners, and perhaps the people who elect them, are about to squarely face the issue of whether to build a new county judicial building in downtown Martinsburg.

Commission President Howard Strauss said a 27-member committee appointed by the commissioners to study the issue will meet in April. The three commissioners say they are committed to solving overcrowding, health and repair problems with existing county buildings by erecting a new structure.

"Anybody that thinks we don't have a problem, tell 'em to come here and we'll give them a tour of the buildings," said Commissioner Robert Burkhart.

But the commissioners agree they face tough questions about a new facility.

Among them: the size of the building, which government functions will go in there, how much it will cost and where the money will come from. There is also possible competition for public dollars with other needs, such as new schools, parks and recreation facilities.

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Strauss has looked east to Jefferson County for possible guidance.

"I think Jefferson County did it right," he said of a 30,000-square-foot facility built in the last three years that houses judicial functions such as some courts and prosecutors.

After studying the issue in the 1990s - some court sessions were held in a basement with exposed pipe wrapped in asbestos - Jefferson County Commissioners were approached by developer Pete Chakmakaian with a plan to rehabilitate a building he owned near the courthouse.

The county leased the building with the option to buy. The county had been putting money into a construction account. The commissioners also dedicated part of the video lottery money from the Charles Town Races and paid off the building in a year at a cost of $3.5 million.

"We're very pleased with the way it turned out," said Jefferson County Commission President James G. Knode.

The commissioners did not issue bonds - or ask for a public vote. If they had, it might have needed a 60 percent yes vote. That almost certainly would have failed, Knode said.

Even at a 50 percent majority, "I think it would have had only a 50-50 chance," he said.

That's the dilemma facing Berkeley County Commissioners, who don't have video lottery money and only this year have put aside $200,000 to start a building fund for the new structure.

Commission attorney Norwood Bentley III is researching the issue of whether a public vote is necessary to issue bonds.

Various cost estimates to build the structure - possibly on the south side of the 100 block of West King Street - range up to $20 million, although Bentley said similar structures in the country have been built for much less.

It would likely house many of the same court and prosecution functions as in Jefferson County, perhaps more.

Knode said using public money to build such a structure is always a question of setting priorities.

"But state code requires we provide reasonable space for essential government functions," he said.

He said it can be difficult to convince voters facing school building and other needs that "they won't just be building better office space for government bureaucrats."

Success in convicting voters will depend on the how the public perceives the need, he said. Most citizens never enter a judicial complex, he said, and many of those who do are in trouble with the law.

Berkeley County schools are growing annually by 300 to 400 students, some attending class in old, overcrowded rooms. The school system will ask voters to approve building bonds this fall.

"Berkeley County residents have always supported their schools and will continue to do so," Bentley said. "And I don't think that will conflict with this."

The needs are great in both areas, he said.

Ed Dockeney, former chairman of the county Building Commission that could issue the bonds, said he thinks a new building would be a tough sell.

"They're going to talk about money," he said. "And when you talk about money ..."

Commissioners may try a lease-purchase arrangement, avoiding paying prevailing wages if the county built the structure. But the commissioners would still face a bill of up to $2 million a year to rent it back.

Strauss acknowledges no one has penciled in exactly where it would come from.

Commissioners could sell a couple of buildings that are costing them huge sums annually in maintenance, he said. The county's enormous growth will generate taxes for more.

Bentley said the county probably will look at finding ways to reduce its budget, perhaps through employee attrition.

"I don't think it would be that tough to pay it back," Bentley said of meeting bond debt or rent costs.

Strauss said the commissioners might have to raise taxes as a last resort, although such talk is premature.

"If it comes to that point, we're going to have to make a tough decision," he said. "But there's not one commissioner who wants to spend money unnecessarily."

Knode said no matter what the county does, the problem won't go away.

"This helped us tread water for a year," he said of the new building. "We're behind again already."

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