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Behind the scenes on the latest on the Augusta County Courthouse

Chris Graham
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Staunton leaders are clearly playing a losing hand with Augusta County on the next steps on the county courthouse, as everybody else is insisting that the deal they claim convinced Gov. Glenn Youngkin to sign off on a November referendum doesn’t exist.

The details of the deal, according to the city’s side on this: Staunton would be able to hire its own architect to develop a plan to renovate the current courthouse building, and whatever the architect came up with would be merged with the plans from the county’s architect, and that final version would be presented to county voters on the November ballot.

According to reporting from the News Leader, the plan from the city could also include tax breaks and financial incentives to offset costs that would be incurred by the county in the final renovations.

I first heard mention of a rumored deal on the referendum midday Friday, before I’d even gotten word from the county and the governor’s office that Youngkin had signed the legislation allowing the county to hold the November referendum.

Then I received an email from a contact in county government informing me that the governor had signed the bills, and unprompted, the contact insisted that any talk of a rumored deal was untrue.

An hour later, the county sent out a news release touting how the governor had signed the bills, with no mention in the presser of any deal allowing Staunton to weigh in.

The day and then the weekend passed with the city not putting out a release of its own, which is noteworthy because the city has been quick to put its own spin on any news involving the courthouse of late.

Another layer to highlight here: a message to me from a city government source over the weekend forwarding what appears to be a contact from lobbyists hired by Staunton.

The forwarded message: “While he did not veto SB 283 and HB 902, his team did negotiate certain concessions with legislators prior to signing the legislation. Based upon the governor’s recommendation, the legislators agreed to engage a second architectural firm to ensure that quality and competition drive the best designs and pricing options for the county voters and city residents.”

The add-on from our city government source: “Hard to figure out who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.”

It needs to be noted here that, per state law, the governor didn’t have the ability to put any “concessions” into writing at this late stage.

His options, essentially, were to either sign the bills or veto them.

The city has been stonewalling the county on the courthouse since the failed 2016 voter referendum, and it’s obvious what the game has been in that respect.

Absent another referendum and approval from county voters to move the county seat to Verona, the city held all the cards.

Now with the governor having signed off on allowing another referendum, the county has a way around having to play Staunton’s game.

That may be what’s going on here with city leaders trying to claim some off-the-book “concessions.”

That’s sounding like an effort at a face-saving measure.

Basically, we’re going to spend another chunk of change on architects, and commit to more chunks of your tax dollars on incentives and tax breaks, but we’re still in the game.

Back to my county government source to close.

“We have no idea where the mayor of Staunton is coming up with the thought Staunton will be participating in the design of our new courthouse,” the source said. “This is not something Del. Avoli or Sen. Hanger agreed upon with the governor as part of the bill signing.  And it is definitely not something our board agreed to.

“I’d be raising holy hell with the mayor and any other City Council member who would pursue spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire an architect to design a courthouse for Augusta County, especially one that will receive no consideration.”

Story by Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].