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Augusta County Courthouse referendum stalled: Youngkin doesn’t seem to get it

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who no one will confuse with King Solomon, is trying to play “both sides” with the fate of the Augusta County Courthouse referendum.

“There were very strong views on both sides on this bill,” Youngkin told a News Leader reporter on Monday, sidestepping the issue of where he’ll ultimately come down on legislation that passed the House of Delegates and State Senate with solid bipartisan majorities that would allow county voters to decide how to best proceed with the future of the Augusta County Courthouse.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected building a new courthouse in Verona in 2016, but the circumstances then weren’t what they are now. The county in 2016 wasn’t under a court order to address the myriad limitations at the current courthouse in Downtown Staunton, for one.

The 2016 referendum was an effort of the county to try to get ahead of a problem that county leaders knew was on the horizon. The proposed 2022 referendum is all about the here and now.

And the bottom line on the here and now: either building a new courthouse in Verona, or building a new courthouse in Staunton.

Almost certainly – with about 99.95 percent certitude – the Staunton option will be far, far more costly. Under current state law, the county courthouse has to be located pretty much where it is right now, or across the street, on the parcel currently home to the General District Court building.

That part of the Johnson Street corridor, as we know, is prone to flooding, with two major flood events in the past couple of years resulting in millions of dollars of damage to commercial and residential homeowners.

The engineering to avoid having a flooded-out brand-new courthouse will add significantly to the price tag.

On top of that, there’s the court order. If there’s no referendum this fall, or if there is a referendum, and county voters decide against the Verona option, the decision is effectively taken out of the hands of county leaders, and goes to a committee appointed by the Office of the Attorney General.

Similar state-directed efforts to replace aging local courthouses have ended up costing local taxpayers in those jurisdictions massive amounts, because the committees of outside experts aren’t bound by trivial matters like how a Taj Mahal of a new courthouse gets paid for.

Back to Youngkin: he said yesterday that “(w)e’re in the process of making sure that I can have a chance personally to listen to the very heartfelt arguments on both sides, and then we’ll make a decision.”

Thing there is, the heartfelt argument being made by Staunton leaders ain’t all that much, boiling down to their concerns that county leaders aren’t listening to their voters.

Left unsaid is that there are concerns on the part of city leaders that moving the courthouse to Verona could impact business in Downtown Staunton.

It’s curious that they’re not saying that part out loud. That probably has to do with the argument there being quite shallow.

Because what they’d be saying there is, Augusta County taxpayers should pay an extra $40 million or $50 million for a new Taj Mahal courthouse in a floodplain so that a few Downtown Staunton business owners can make a few extra bucks each day selling sandwiches and coffee to courthouse visitors.

Youngkin, again: “I’m gonna do the work and listen to both sides before I make a decision,” he said Monday.

Funny thing there is, Augusta County went 77.9 percent for Youngkin last fall, and Staunton (checks notes) went 51.2 percent for the other guy.

None of the math – the extra tens of millions that it would cost the county, to benefit the Democratic-leaning city – adds up on this, and yet, here we are.

Story by Chris Graham


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