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Monday, May 27, 2024

Courthouse in crisis: 40 years late, commissioners address lack of judiciary space in Pender County

The Pender County Courthouse, built in the 1930s, does not have adequate space to hold court and maintain its records. Commissioners finally agreed to space needs assessment to review options. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — It’s been three years since Pender County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Craver, elected to her role in 2017, has confronted the county commissioners about limited space in the 33,000-square-foot Pender County Courthouse. 

“I have judges refusing to hold court in one of the courtrooms,” she told commissioners Sept. 6 during the public comment period of a meeting.

At the commissioner’s Nov. 21 meeting, the four-member board (David Piepmeyer was absent) voted to move forward with a needs assessment, which will determine if the courthouse should be expanded, a new building constructed or another alternative is applicable.

The Pender County Courthouse, built in 1936, runs five courts but only has three rooms and “only two are adequate,” Craver told commissioners Monday.

One is an old office converted before 1980 into a makeshift courtroom. Judge Julius Corpening explained to Port City Daily there is one entrance and exit at the back of the room, providing a safety issue if faced with an emergency.

“For family law cases, in my view, it’s not safe,” he said. “Where the judge has to … go through people in high conflict to exit.”

Nearly a century ago when the building was constructed, the population of the county was 16,000. That has now grown by more than 26% to roughly 62,000 people.

“Yet, we’re still in the same space,” Craver said.

She first brought forth the issue in May 2019, but the item was removed from the agenda, not to be discussed until Nov. 1, 2021 in closed session, Craver said.

“I was told by the first quarter of 2022 we would have a space needs assessment and by the second quarter we would meet and decide how to move forward,” Craver said Monday. “I’m here today with Judge Corpening and Judge [Phyllis] Gorham to ask for a space needs assessment and the funds and a timeline.”

Corpening said he also has been inquiring about more space since October 2018, though the issue dates back to the ‘70s, when he began practicing law in the Cape Fear region. Not all of the courthouse’s 33,000 square feet is usable space.

Corpening said the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts determined Pender would need more space by the 1980s.

During that decade, another study indicated the courthouse was out of capacity. By 2007, the N.C. Rural Courts Commission encouraged stakeholders to work together to find a solution.

Eventually, commissioners authorized an old drug store to be converted into the Francis Dawson Basden Judicial Annex, just a block from the courthouse. It wasn’t until about 12 years ago that security screening individuals before entering was added.

Corpening recalled a time when the sheriff was called because a man was walking around the annex with a gun in a holster. 

“The space where I sit … at the annex, we’re practically on top of one another,” he said, with the judge’s bench, the clerk’s seat and witness stand clustered.

“It was never intended to be what it was,” he explained and added some judges had physical reactions from being inside the building, due to mold growth from water intrusion.

Water damage from Hurricane Florence in 2018 shuttered the courthouse for three years for remediation. The weight of the county’s court files and old records were moved to a temporary storage location. 

“When the water had gone down after Florence, I literally begged the commissioners to do a space study before spending any money on renovating the building,” Corpening said.

Renovations topped out at nearly $5 million as more issues were uncovered. Its HVAC and electrical systems had to be removed from the basement during this time as well and now take up about one-fourth of the main courthouse floor.

The architect behind the courthouse’s remodel during Florence was the one who noted the records were stored in a way that put too much stress on the building.

An hour-plus discussion occurred last fall with a suggestion to implement new storage in the courthouse for the files, but the motion was tabled. Commissioners could not agree on what they called a “band-aid” to spend nearly $500,000 on improvements, knowing additional paper files would continue to be added to the stack with no more room for growth.

“We’re in crisis mode right now,” Corpening told commissioners earlier this week. “The people’s house doesn’t have the people’s records.”

Craver explained North Carolina is not currently on an electronic filing system so everything must be documented on paper. Though the state has been considering the switch to electronic filing, Craver noted it’s still probably five years out.

In the interim, the county is leasing space at 102 W. Fremont St. in Burgaw to store its court files. Craver said she had to hire temporary labor to run back and forth to access them. The lease expires January 2024 and will not be renewed, she added.

“People are entitled to those records,” Corpening said. “Instead of calling two or three days in advance, ‘When can you send a clerk down to the building and pull them out?’”

He also has been forced to cancel court and in certain circumstances hold it in places “unsafe,” meaning not secure. Makeshift rooms have been set up at the board of education building, commissioners’ quarters, and the Pender County agricultural building.

“The county has been good with trying to help us find space, but part of not having adequate court space means none of those are configured to be a court,” Corpening said.

Judge Gorham echoed her colleagues’ sentiments, noting that having individuals attend court in the annex is not an ideal situation.

“We don’t have enough space; we get kicked out of the building a lot because district court needs the space,” Gorham said in Monday’s meeting. “The county is growing and there are more cases coming through the court system.”

For example, Gorham noted there are typically 1,000 people that show up for traffic court. Yet, there is never adequate room to move people through the process in an orderly and timely fashion.

Despite the pleas heard Nov. 21, one commissioner almost pushed pause again on procuring an assessment.

Commissioner Jackie Newton suggested it would be better for Pender’s newly elected board, which includes two new members plus Jimmy Tate who was appointed in August, to take it up when it convenes in December.

Newton, who continues to serve her second term, said they will be the ones tasked with finding a solution based on the study’s recommendations.

“I can appreciate that, but this has been dragging on for a long time,” commissioner George Brown said. “It’s not fair to dump it on the new board — but, at the same time, when I came in as a new commissioner, there were a lot of things to take care of that the last board wasn’t able to complete.”

He also noted it’s been during their tenure that the clerk and judges have been asking for more room.

“Sticking our head in the dirt’s not going to make it go away,” Brown said. “So, saddle up. Let’s get ready to do our jobs and do what we have to do to make this a greater county than what it is now.”

Commissioner Tate agreed. While he expressed a desire to preserve the historic nature of the courthouse, other issues rise to the top.

“At some point we need to look at efficiency, and that’s the age we’re in,” he said. “And safety overrules everything for me.”

Newton clarified her stance to say she’s in support of the courthouse’s needs.

“If there’s an issue with courtrooms, then that needs to be addressed,” she said Monday. “We can take pot shots all day at this record business, but the fact of the matter is, if we don’t have enough courtrooms, then we’re not doing our job to the citizens.”

County manager David Andrews said he will release an RFQ for firms to do the space needs analysis, estimated at about $50,000, in the next 30 to 45 days.

“I’m thrilled we’re at the point now [commissioners] recognized the need,” Corpening said.

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