Governor promises to look at courthouse funding
"I don't think the state has ever built a courthouse," Governor Joe Manchin told county and town officials when he sat down with them in a trailer meeting room last Wednesday afternoon, April 11.
Manchin said it was a "public policy" question to decide if, and how, the state could help build a new Morgan County Courthouse. He said they were in "unchartered waters."
The governor was shown the plans and artist's drawings of the proposed courthouse. Morgan County Commission president Glen Stotler said the plans were based on what elected officials felt their office needs would be, as well as the necessities of modern courts and security.
The proposed courthouse, as well as an additional building south of town for the Sheriff's Law Enforcement office, will cost about $12,750,000, Stotler said. Some $3,750,000 will come from insurance and the county can afford debt service on another $4 million, leaving $5 million still to be found, Stotler told the governor.
Manchin said he had discussed the matter several times with State Senator Walt Helmick, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, and former Delegate Charles Trump. They are trying to find a way to help, but whatever is done for Morgan County would have to be something that the state is prepared to do for other counties in the future, Manchin said.
Courthouses are county responsibilities, Manchin said. He noted that the proposed three-story courthouse has twice the floor space as the complex of buildings that were destroyed or damaged in the fire last August.
While the insurance proceeds aren't enough to cover the new building, Manchin said they may not have been out of kilter with the value of what was there.
When Senator Helmick made a comparison of what other courthouses were insured for, the amounts were "alarmingly low," Manchin said. "It scared us all."
At various times during the discussion, the governor mentioned the possibility of the county issuing bonds, or the state issuing bonds to raise money for multi-county projects, or the state making a no-interest loan to the county. He said he would ask about "creative loan" ideas and whether state economic development people had any way to help.
"Helping you to help yourself is what we have to do," Manchin said.
Joint county/town project?
Manchin also suggested that the state might be more inclined to help if the new courthouse had some room for Town of Bath offices. Mayor Susan Webster had shown him that the current town hall is inadequate and has a real need for better court and police facilities, he said.
Manchin felt state officials would see the value in some kind of innovative, joint county/town project. He repeatedly mentioned a government center built years ago in Fairmont that combined city offices, Marion County government, courts and a library. It was funded by a bond issue approved by voters, he said.
Stotler said a fourth floor would have to be added to
the new courthouse if town offices were included, and
that the Bath Town Council
had no money to contribute. Before the governor's visit,
the commissioners had met with the Town Finance Committee.
Stotler did say that courtroom time could certainly be scheduled for the town's traffic court, which presently only meets one morning a month.
Manchin asked if the town council might be able to put a building next to the courthouse. He wondered who owns the lot that holds the trailers where the present county offices are located.
Told that the lot is privately owned and being leased to the county for $1 a year, Manchin said: "You can't be spending $13 million there and not own this." He said he would be willing to contact the property owners himself.
As the 40-minute meeting wound down, Senator Helmick said, "We understand what the need is." But, he felt, it was premature to say exactly what could be done.
"I just don't have the answer right now," Manchin said. "I have the desire to do it. I just don't have the answers."
Manchin said Morgan County is a growing, desirable area. "Sometime we need to talk about the area, 522, the hospital and the growth," he said.