York County Council Chairman Britt Blackewll said he has asked new County Manager Bill Shanahan to make court-related improvements his top priority when he starts work this month. We think that is appropriate.
As detailed in a Sept. 15 story in The Herald, the county’s various courtrooms and offices are spread among different locations, many of them makeshift temporary spaces, throughout the county. The situation is both confusing and time consuming for residents who need the services of the courts and frustrating for county employees who have to work under those conditions.
The ongoing renovation of the historic York County Courthouse in York will solve a few of those space problems but not many. That project, which was begun before the millennium, is not expected to be finished until 2015 – and some suspect it will be later than that.
Courthouse renovations were delayed in 2008, when money was first allocated for the project. Then the process was stalled again when the county changed architects in 2011.
Meanwhile, the county has paid more than $3 million in preliminary costs. And leasing space for the courts has cost the county just shy of $1.5 million in rental fees and utilities alone since 1998. If construction goes as planned, taxpayers will shell out at least $364,000 more in rent through 2015.
And that doesn’t account for actual construction costs. In January, county engineers projected a $6 million total cost for courthouse updates.
Even when the project is completed, the county will have nothing resembling a centralized court system. For example, Clerk of Court David Hamilton spreads his time among three different locations, the Moss Justice Center, which handles criminal cases, in York; the Family Court at the Heckle Complex in Rock Hill; and the Belk Building in York, which houses the civil court. He said York County is the only county in the state where the clerk of court works in three locations.
By the 1990s, both the Probate Court and the Master-in-Equity had outgrown their offices at the courthouse and moved to leased sites. Civil court moved out in 2011.
The Family Court system has nearly outgrown its offices, and another justice center is needed in eastern York County.
County records are stored in two locations, the Belk Building and the McCelvey Center in York, as well as on-site at various offices throughout the system. Some records, including historic documents, were damaged last month when stormwater flooded McCelvey Center.
Those records need to be in one location and tended by one staff.
The helter-skelter system is tough on customers. People seeking services in one building often are directed to another building across town, wasting their time and money.
It might be too late to house the entire court system under one roof. But the county at least should find a way to consolidate courts, provide space for inevitable growth and ensure that offices are comfortable, secure and equipped with the latest technology.
Yes, a comprehensive upgrade of the system would be costly. But so are delays in the courthouse renovation, relocating office materials and leasing temporary buildings.
What’s lacking is a master plan to centralize court buildings near higher population areas to accommodate growth and make the system more convenient for both residents and employees. We hope the new county manager can provide the impetus to devise that plan.
Failure to do so could doom York County to continuing inefficiency and inadequate facilities for its court system for decades to come.