We, not courts, should make courthouse decision

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By Steve Willis

The editorial board of The Lancaster News contends that now is not the time to go to the voters with a ballot question for a 1 cent capital project sales tax to replace the courthouse.

I contend the editorial board is looking at the wrong question. There is no doubt that we will not be holding court in the county courthouse much longer. The question is not do we sit around and wait two more years before addressing the problem; the question is do we address the problem in a proactive or reactive manner.

While we intend to address some short-term structural integrity issues with the courthouse, such as replacing the windows and roof, the recent editorial properly noted the many shortcomings of the courthouse as a venue to conduct a trial. It is not merely inadequate, it is totally inadequate. The members of Lancaster County Council have informed me that in recent years there have even been letters sent to the S.C. Court Administration from visiting circuit court judges indicating their refusal to come back to Lancaster due to the state of our facilities.

The condition of our courthouse is known in Columbia and they are waiting to see if we plan to address the issue. If we choose to simply say, “now is not the time,” I foresee significant consequences in the future. We would hardly be in a position to complain if the Supreme Court issued an order closing our courthouse when even our hometown newspaper properly notes the facility is, “ee woefully outdated. It’s far too small and isn’t equipped with the security devices a courthouse really must have in this day and age.”

The closing of our courthouse would leave us with several unpleasant alternatives. We could rent time in the courthouses of adjoining counties. This would also involve transporting court staff and law enforcement, and most importantly, our local jurors to another county on a daily basis. The costs involved with this option would quickly eclipse the cost of constructing a new facility.

The other alternative is to simply move forward with a bond to build just a new courtroom and clerk of court office. Under South Carolina law, County Council can exceed the property tax cap pursuant to a judicial order and spend whatever is needed to comply with that order without asking the voters. This leaves our future at the mercy of the judiciary, not our voters and their elected representatives.

While this would give us a new courthouse, it still would not solve the problem of having many court-related offices outside the courthouse. We now have court-related functions scattered throughout the area, ranging from the solicitor’s office across the street to probation, parole and pardon services out on Pageland Highway. The related travel and inefficiencies cost the citizens of this county on a daily basis.

We also have other courts that should be in the courthouse, but are located elsewhere. Family court is in the old health department on Catawba Street, probate court is in the county building on Main Street and magistrate’s court is located on the bypass. As court-mandated security requirements increase routinely, it is critical that we locate these courts in a single facility to reduce required staff and daily operational costs. The sheriff is obligated by law to provide security for these court facilities. When multiple courts are running simultaneously, it can easily require the entire on-duty shift to provide court security and transportation of prisoners, with off-duty deputies on overtime filling in as needed. This is hardly conducive to providing adequate law enforcement to Lancaster County; our sheriff’s office is understaffed even without throwing court security into the mix. Your readers may ask why council doesn’t just raise property taxes enough to hire an adequate number of deputies to handle both law enforcement and court responsibilities. I would note that compliance with a judicial order is one of five permissible reasons to exceed the state property tax cap. Providing adequate services to our citizens is not a permissible reason under state law to exceed the tax cap.

There is no question this issue should have been addressed decades ago. For whatever reason, (perhaps the timing wasn’t right,) it wasn’t and it has come to a breaking point today. Our choices are:

1. Do nothing and see how things look in two-and-a-half years. Under state law, if we do not pose the question now to the voters, we cannot do so again until November 2010. One way or the other, we will have had to take action by the time that date rolls around.

2. Pose the question now and let the citizens have their say. If they vote no, we are no worse off and will still have to move forward with meeting court requirements through one of the options mentioned above.

I would submit now is the perfect time to submit this question to the voters, as it may well be the only time to submit it to the voters. If we have already had to act by November 2010, there will be nothing left to ask. The real question is not if this problem should be addressed now. The real question is do we want to take action utilizing a sales tax that all residents and visitors pay a few pennies at a time or do we hit the residents with a property tax increase, which is paid once a year only by those who own property. I would also mention that bonds normally run for 20-to-30-year periods, while a sales tax can last no longer than seven years and if the necessary funds are raised prior to that time, it actually goes away sooner.

A new courthouse that allows for the cost-effective administration of justice is needed, as all sides agree. The real question is do we address this proactively and control our own destiny to meet our long-term needs in a fashion that allows us to minimize future operational costs or do we sit back and let the courts decide our fate for us? I, for one, believe we should address this issue in a proactive manner.