Courthouse costs — five questions for the supervisors

Published 1:20 pm Friday, March 18, 2016

The new courthouse is a huge county expenditure. Taxpayers have a right to know the total costs and how they will be financed. Below are five questions to ask each member of the board of supervisors.

1. How much will the new courthouse construction cost?

The March 2015 construction cost estimate was $9.5 million. This increased to $11.7 million in November. Why did the estimate increase $2.2 million in eight months when the courthouse committee made clear the plans were fixed by the April 2015 court order?

2. What costs are there in addition to construction?

Architect fees are almost $1.2 million and likely to increase as the contract includes additional services to be billed at rates up to $216 per hour. Attorney’s fees for courthouse litigation from 2012 to 2015 were over $100,000. The supervisors just approved hiring a courthouse construction project manager for $250,000. Large costs with no estimates are furniture, fixtures, equipment, acoustics, audio/visual, communications, parking, VDOT access requirements, landscaping and cost overruns. It is unclear whether the courthouse committee is making decisions for the full board on these costs.

3. How will the total courthouse costs be paid?

The county borrowed $12 million in August with a 30-year loan. It is normal to finance capital projects so each year’s taxpayers pay a part of each year’s costs. Hopefully this loan will be cover all courthouse costs and the supervisors will not ask taxpayers for several million dollars all at once, when the costs could be financed at low interest rates.

4. Will the $12 million loan require an increase in tax rates?

The FY 2016 tax increase provided approximately $500,000 new revenue. The $12 million loan only increased annual debt payments by $300,000 because the middle school was paid off in 2015. Simply put, annual tax revenue increased by $200,000 more than needed for debt payments.

5. What is the county’s financial position?

The county ended FY 2015 with an $8.5 million unassigned fund balance or 48 percent of total general fund expenditures. This is a stronger position than the six surrounding counties. However, Charlotte’s tax rates are higher than most. For example, the real estate tax rate per $100 is .53 cents in Charlotte, .40 cents in Mecklenburg and .38 cents in Lunenburg. Is our tax rate higher than needed to provide current services?

Our elected supervisors owe the public honest answers supported by facts. Taxpayer’s money should be spent in a transparent manner. The real discussions should be in public meetings for the citizens to watch. Can the FY 2017 tax rate decrease? We have extra revenue from the FY 2016 tax increase and a strong cash balance. The unknown is whether the full board will take responsibility for courthouse cost control, or let a committee operating in secret make the real decisions.

Talk to each supervisor. Ask questions. Attend board meetings. Citizen involvement ensures an open government process and fair tax rates.

Terry Ramsey is a guest columnist and a 1967 graduate of Randolph-Henry High School and a resident of Charlotte Court House. He can be reached at