Originally created 11/28/02

Camden County officials debate courthouse work



WOODBINE, Ga. - A Camden County commissioner-elect is urging county officials to halt a courthouse renovation project and transfer most of those funds into the county's general budget.

Sandy Feller said he wants to give beleaguered taxpayers a break by transferring $2 million from a $3.5 million fund that was approved by taxpayers to renovate the county's historic courthouse.

The funds would be used to reduce property taxes, he said.

County officials say that although it might be possible to cancel the project, it might not be practical - or legal. The 1922-era courthouse in Woodbine will revert to county office space in July 2003, when a new 50,000-square-foot courthouse is completed a block away.

Plans call for all court employees, the Probate Court and court records to move into the new courthouse. Other county employees would then move into the old courthouse.

County officials say the old building is overcrowded and needs to be renovated. The roof has been under constant repair for the past five years, said Harvey Amerson, facilities manager. Repairshave cost between $18,000 and $20,000, he said.

Renovation plans call for combining the main courthouse and two smaller annexes under one roof, to maintain the integrity of the historic building, said Bill Shanahan, assistant county administrator.

Susan Waldron, clerk of courts, said ceilings in some offices regularly leak. She stood in one office where child-support checks are processed, and pointed to three missing ceiling tiles.

"We came in here one Monday morning, and everything was soaking wet," she said. "For some sheer wonder, the computers didn't get wet."

Yet Mr. Feller and three current commissioners say the courthouse project should wait, in view of the economic situation in the county.

"I'm more concerned about the taxpayer than the creature comforts of the county employees," said Mr. Feller, who begins his term in January.

With the closing of Durango-Georgia Paper Co. and the loss of two submarines at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, Mr. Feller said, taxpayers need the money more than the government.

"We've got 900 people on the streets. We've got two boats gone," he said. "We're in dire straits."

Mr. Feller suggested putting the $2 million held in trust from a special purpose local option sales tax back into county coffers and cutting taxes accordingly - to the point where the owner of a $100,000 home would save between $65 and $80 per year.

Though tax bills reflecting a tax increase have already gone out, three commissioners - E.B. Herrin, Ken Hase and David Rainer - said they would still support diverting the courthouse funds to the general budget, if it were deemed legal.

"We need to do everything possible not to increase people's taxes," Mr. Rainer said.

"If we could legally do it, I'm for it. It's a perfectly functional building," said Mr. Hase, a county commissioner who lost his job at Durango-Georgia. He is now working as an environmental engineering contractor at a Fernandina Beach paper mill.

"All we have to do is declare the project unfeasible because we can't afford it right now," Mr. Hase said. "I'd have to say it's a stretch, but this is a good time to stretch things."

But they may risk a lawsuit if they try, he said.

In a 1994 case between the residents and government of Floyd County, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the county had to complete a project funded by a similarly enacted special tax.

Camden County Commission Chairman Steve Berry said reallocating the funds would violate a trust with taxpayers.

"In my opinion, it's illegal," said Mr. Berry, a lawyer. "The voters approved the central office complex; the voters have spoken."

Through two separate referendums, voters agreed to allocate $2 million and an additional $1.5 million collected from a 1-cent sales tax to fund the courthouse renovations. The first $2 million is being held in an account, while the county collects the remaining $1.5 million from sales taxes during the next five years.

Mr. Feller dismisses the suggestion that residents would sue.

"I'm concerned about people who can't pay their mortgages and their utilities," Mr. Feller said. "Who is going to sue over this?"