Total courthouse repairs are estimated at roughly $7.5 million, but the county is still seeking financial assistance from FEMA and its insurance provider. Meanwhile, the court system is spread out in four buildings around Burgaw.
BURGAW — Nearly 13 months after Hurricane Florence brought extensive water and mold damage to the historic Pender County Courthouse, scaffolding now surrounds the building as exterior work is set to begin.
But the masonry repair work, expected to cost roughly $1 million and scheduled to begin early next week and last through late March, comes as the county continues its attempts to nail down financial assistance from FEMA and its insurance provider.
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“We’re hoping to get someone before us with FEMA who can actually help make some decisions and understand what we have available to us,” the county’s facilities director, Allen Vann, told commissioners Monday night.
A long, bureaucratic affair
Chad McEwen, who took over the county manager position last month, said delays in the building’s renovation work are due to the long, bureaucratic process of lining up needs and requirements of all stakeholders involved, including those of the county, the insurance provider, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, and FEMA.
He said the county is now seeking help from U.S. Congressman David Rouzer and the governor’s office to help get an answer from FEMA.
“We’ve been trying for some time to get a meeting with someone at FEMA who can make a decision about our mitigation project,” McEwen said. “We’ve been asking, and finally had to engage Congressman Rouzer’s office. And we’ve reached out to the governor’s office. All we’re asking is for somebody who can intelligently answer our questions about whether our projects will be qualified.”
McEwen said the scope of the interior work is now being finalized, but if the requested mitigation funds do not come through, the county would need to “considerably scale back the work” to a baseline level of renovating the courthouse to its original state of condition before the hurricane. But he said the county is seeking the additional mitigation funds to better protect the building from future storms, and for the first time provide indoor humidity control.
Architect Charles Boney of the Wilmington firm LS3P Associates, who is leading the project, said a rough estimate for interior renovations — including at least $3 million for “resiliency efforts” that would be paid mostly through FEMA mitigation funds — is more than $7.5 million.
When asked by Commissioner Jackie Newton if the planned replacement of the courthouse’s mechanical system was part of an effort to “make the building environmentally healthy,” Boney said it would, and that “it will give us the ability to control the humidity inside that building, which we don’t really have today.”
Humidity concerns existed before Florence. In October 2018, weeks after the hurricane, Pender Clerk of Superior Court Elizabeth Craver said that long before Florence, “we’ve known that there’s been a moisture-related issue in that courthouse.”
Last April, she called for the county to address reports among her staff, working in the nearby Basden Judicial Annex building at the time, complaining of headaches, sinus issues, and nosebleeds — an issue she called the “sick building syndrome.” At the time she also said past elected clerks had investigated health issues of court employees who had previously worked in the courthouse.
No end in sight
Boney was scheduled to meet with SHPO representatives on Wednesday to continue seeking state approval of the renovation plans and their conformance to preservation requirements, which are tied to the potential FEMA assistance. In February, commissioners and town officials debated details of the already delayed approval and whether the county itself had delayed its communication with SHPO.
In early May, the town announced that the 83-year-old courthouse was already undergoing restoration work; in August, then-County Manager Randall Woodruff said “restoration work initially started months ago.”
“Then when we determined the impact of the hurricane was much more significant that we initially realized, we had to reanalyze [the damages] to proceed at a higher level,” Woodruff said at the time.
In May, a monthly county update courthouse said that Boney anticipated the courthouse “ready to open” in the early part of 2020. In August, a tentative schedule for interior work outlined three months to complete plans, one month to issue for bids, and six to eight months to complete the work. However, the 3-month planning goal is reaching its end as Boney continues to finalize the scope of work and the county still seeks FEMA and insurance assistance.
According to Boney’s report to commissioners Monday night, the insurance provider — which McEwen said was the Risk Management Pools (RMPs) of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners — “has not accepted responsibility” and disputed interior repairs.
“Insurance companies don’t make money by paying out large claims,” McEwen said. “That’s one of the challenges we’ve had.”
A scattered court system
The county’s judicial system continues to operate in annexes and temporary buildings throughout Burgaw. After working in the cramped back offices of the Basden Judicial Annex since Florence, the county spent roughly $500,000 on purchasing and renovating the former Biberstein law firm, located directly opposite the courthouse, for employees of the clerk’s office to relocate to.
McEwen said that shortly after Florence the county also rented two buildings for the members of the district attorney’s office, who before Florence worked out of the courthouse as well.
Samantha Dooies, assistant to District Attorney Ben David, said the scattering of court offices and personnel since Florence has been a “tremendous inconvenience.”
“It’s been really tough to have people here, there, and everywhere,” Dooies said. “There’s been confusion about where court sessions are going to be held based on availability. If we are running multiple sessions simultaneously — criminal district court for misdemeanors, criminal superior court for felonies, and any sort of family court — there have been times that we’ve had to appeal to the county manager’s office and the clerk’s office to get a third venue. “
Logistical shuffles remain the court system’s top concern, Dooies said. For Thursday’s traffic court, she expected roughly 700 to 800 people to show up out of more than 1,000 on the docket. She said the court would be held at either the Basden Annex or a building formerly occupied by the Dees Drug Store, which the county opened several months ago.
“Starting at 8:15 [Thursday] morning, people are going to be arriving in truckloads standing outside,” Dooies said. “Whether it’s the Basden Annex or Dees, they don’t have the capacity to accommodate all those folks.”
Before the March trial of James Bradley, who was later convicted for the murder of 33-year-old Elisha Tucker, Dooies said the county had originally offered the meeting room in the Agricultural Building. Security concerns were raised, however, because one bathroom would have to be shared by everyone, “including the judge and defendant,” Dooies said. The trial was sent to Wilmington, but jurors still came from across Pender County.
“It took about two and a half months for the jury to be selected. We went through batches and batches of jurors — I think around 250 — just to arrive at the panel that we ultimately reached,” Dooies said.
Other logistical issues have included sequestering witnesses in separate buildings and driving to and from the district attorney’s offices off Highway 117 to furnish sensitive criminal history reports for individual cases.
“So minutes [of delays],” Dooies said. “But minutes upon minutes upon minutes.”
But she said the county has done everything it can to accommodate court personnel. According to McEwen, the county’s sense of urgency to repair and reopen the courthouse was felt immediately after Florence. When the extent of the damages was realized, McEwen said the county understood “what that meant from an operational standpoint to the court system.”
“The county has done everything humanly possible to accommodate the court operations,” McEwen said. “Any building that we’ve had, any meeting space that we’ve had has been at the disposal of the court system.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com or (970) 413-3815