Tuesday September 4, 2001




Cost, size, site issues of Haywood Justice Center 
By Jon Ostendorff, STAFF WRITER 
Posted: 09-03-01 01:30

WAYNESVILLE ó A battle over a new Haywood County justice center, jail and courthouse renovation project boils down to three issues, say residents and county leaders: a $1 million difference in the cost of two proposed funding options, the size of the project and the location of the justice center.

The battle, which might end with a November showdown at the polls, pits residents who oppose the project against a majority of the countyís commissioners who have threatened to push the project through despite public dissent.

The price of this war is the estimated $1 million ó the extra amount residents will pay over 20 years if the $36.6 million general obligation bond fails and the county uses more expensive certificates of participation. 

If Haywood secures the certificates, it will join two other mountain counties that have built new justice centers during the last decade without the publicís direct support ó Jackson and Henderson.

Some residents, who say they will fight the county at the state level to stop the project, argue that the issue is not just about money. They agree that the county needs to improve its aging court facilities but say the proposed project is too large for the countyís needs.

As the county moves closer to the Nov. 6 vote on the most expensive project in its history, three issues are on the minds of supporters and objectors: cost, size and location.

The cost

The county has two funding options for the project: a low-interest-rate voter-approved bond or more expensive state loans called certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval. 

With the lowest estimated interest rate of 4.9 percent on the bond, the county would spend more than $54 million over 20 years for the justice center, jail and courthouse renovation.

Evan McDirmit, who is opposed to the projectís size and cost, says the countyís research for the project is flawed.

"This is a waste of taxpayer money, as I see it," McDirmit said. "Obviously if the data is flawed, then the justice center is oversized."

McDirmit, who is retired from a career analyzing missile systems for the defense industry, compiled a report he says proves that the proposed justice center is more courthouse than the county needs. His report is the only independent analysis of the project. 

The county has responded to McDirmitís criticism of the jail portion of the project ó maintaining that its study is accurate ó but has not responded to his study of the justice center.

County Manager Jack Horton says the county can fund the project without a tax increase. He believes that after the county adjusts its tax rate next year to reflect higher property values, the new tax rate could be less than the current rate, even with the additional debt. 

Robert Mulligan, an assistant professor of economics at Western Carolina University, says Hortonís assessment is probably wishful thinking. He says the bond is the best way to fund the project but the money the county will take from the new tax rate is a hidden increase.

"This project just doesnít make financial sense unless there are some actual savings they can point to with this new building," Mulligan said. 

The county has not discussed any potential cost savings other than rent it pays for court offices not housed in the county courthouse.

Size and location

Itís going to be big ó bigger than any other building on Main Street. 

The new 95,000-square-foot justice center would be built beside the 37,386-square-foot original courthouse, constructed in 1932. 

Austin Swanger, a vocal opponent of the project, says the justice center would be an eyesore.

"Itís a monster," he said. "Sixty percent of all the cases are traffic court. Do you really need that kind of Taj Mahal to try traffic court?"

During a public hearing last week, county leaders told residents they are designing the center to fit the needs of the future.

Location also could be a stumbling block. 

When Jackson County built its justice center away from downtown, Sylva business owners objected.

Haywood County, however, wants to build its facility next to the original courthouse.

Like their Sylva colleagues, Waynesville merchants have the most to lose or gain from the justice centerís location. 

Ron Huelster, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, a group charged with revitalizing the downtown business district, says his 170-member organization generally supports the project. 

"We feel that this is an appropriate place for it," he said. "(But) we have also pointed out the need to try to scale back." 

An informal survey of 40 of Main Streetís shops found that 17 business owners supported the project and 15 did not. Eight business owners said they were undecided.

"I think the downtown area is great the way it is," said George Berry, owner of the Old Enchanted Cottage. "I donít want to see a high-rise office building."

Cliff Bolin, owner of Furniture Village, had a different take.

"We need it," he said. "Downtown needs it."

Waynesville leaders had supported the entire project. That changed after 200 residents showed up and criticized the county during a public hearing on the bond.

"The town feels that the four-story building is too overpowering," Mayor Henry Foy said this week.

The final say

The town may have the final say. Its Board of Adjustments must approve a height variance for the building because it breaks the 35-foot cap.

A site for the jail and law enforcement center hasnít been chosen.

But residents will get their chance to weigh in when they go to the polls. Voters wonít be asked to vote for or against the justice center, jail and courthouse renovation project - they will vote on how to pay for it. 

Opponents say county leaders should heed whatever message comes out of the polling booths.

"The bond will fail," Swanger said. "I think they need to step back and get people involved and look at the needs."

Swanger has said his group will approach the state Local Government Commission, which makes decisions on funding local projects, with petitions against the justice center if the county tries to pursue certificates of participation.

Contact Ostendorff at 452-1467 or JOstendorff@CITIZEN-TIMES.com

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