County Commissioner Giles “Buddy” Byrd on Tuesday demanded the board vote on other uses for the old county courthouse before it reopens this summer.
The project is expected to be completed in April, and open for business in June, but Byrd said Tuesday that he feels using the courthouse as designed is too expensive.
Byrd made the comments during a period when commissioners offer comments and announcements. He asked County Manager Eddie Madden if he had assembled a list of possible uses for the 1918 courthouse. Byrd asked Madden to compile the list during a courthouse committee meeting earlier this month. The uses are supposed to include options other than those previously voted on by the commissioners and approved by former Resident Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser.
County commissioners are ultimately responsible for assigning office spaces and uses in all county property, including the old courthouse.
Byrd came out against the clerk’s office moving back to its original quarters in that committee meeting, and called for district court judges offices to be placed in the building instead. Byrd said that new cost estimates to provide security by the sheriff’s office would make the project too expensive. Sheriff Rogers originally told county officials he would need more than $600,000 a year to provide six deputies to provide additional security with the restored courthouse. That number was later adjusted to two deputies at $120,000 each.
Madden said he had looked into other uses for the courthouse, and had “pages of notes” from meetings of the courthouse committee. The most recent meeting was prompted by Sheriff Bill Rogers’ request for additional funding for security at the old courthouse.
“Alternatives can be considered,” Madden said, “but ultimately we will do the wishes of the board.”
The $6 million restoration was largely paid for with appropriations obtained by State Rep. Brenden Jones. A writ of mandamus order by Sasser in 2020 instructed the commissioners to decide how to use the courthouse. The writ was lifted in 2021 after commissioners approved a plan that placed the clerk of court and administrative offices on the first floor, with the restored Superior Court Room and the office for the Chief Resident Superior Court Judge upstairs. Those plans guided the construction during the renovation.
Commission Chair Ricky Bullard reminded Byrd that the project was paid for with state funding, not local tax dollars, and that the plan used for the restoration was approved by Sasser. While he did not do so during Tuesday’s meeting, Byrd has publicly questioned if the commissioners were still bound by the plan, since Sasser rescinded the writ after commissioners approved the architectural design and construction plans in 2021.
In Tuesday’s meeting, Byrd said that Clerk of Superior Court Jess Hill had “come to us so many times about how dangerous it is to cross the street,” Byrd said, “carrying jackets (court files) from one place to another, like in Tabor City. Now just before it’s done, we’re going to put the office there?”
Hill said he did not recall ever speaking to commissioners about traffic conditions around the courthouse. He also reemphasized that with the shift to eCourt system in 2025, all files will be available electronically, and clerks will no longer have to carry physical paper files back and forth to courtrooms. The plans were always to place the clerk’s office back in the old courthouse, Hill said, and that influenced the layout and design of the downstairs portion of the building.
“I do not remember ever saying anything in a commissioner or committee meeting about traffic,” Hill said.
A check of county commissioners meeting minutes showed Hill attending several meetings in his official capacity, but makes no mention of concerns about traffic around the courthouse in the official record of the meetings.
At Tuesday’s meeting Byrd said during a tense exchange with Bullard that “all the commissioners have a right to vote” and he wanted the board to have a vote on other uses for the courthouse. He also instructed Madden to make the list of other use available for the public. Byrd did not specify how and when those alternatives would be made available.
Byrd said he “strictly opposes” spending “all that extra money on security,” and he wanted to be on the record opposing the current plan.
Bullard said commissioners had previously voted on the plan that was approved by Sasser. He also said that based on his discussion with people in the county, the plan to reopen the superior courtroom and house the superior court judge and clerk in the old courthouse has broad support. He noted that the majority of the current board of commissioners agreed with the plan as originally approved by Sasser and the previous board of commissioners.
“I think the people are pleased with the result,” he said. “We have a beautifully restored courthouse. As our county grows, we are going to need more room for (the courts).” Bullard then called on Commissioner Lavern Coleman, but Byrd interrupted again.
“Hold on a minute. I totally agree with that,” Byrd said, and re-emphasized that he wanted to be on the record opposing spending the additional money for security.
Byrd said he felt the county would save money by moving the district court judges offices to the space set aside for the clerk’s office, and setting up the judicial chambers in the Dempsey Herring building as the office for the new public defender.
Chief District Court Judge Scott Ussery said last week that he has no preference about where the county decides to place the new lower court judicial chambers. District court judges generally spend less time in their offices than superior court judges. Ussery noted that district judges have a suite of offices in Brunswick County, but there’s no requirement that counties provide offices for district judiciary.
“The county is our landlord,” he said. “If they want us to move, I’d like to be able to inspect where they’d like us to move to, but ultimately it’s their choice.”