Augusta County taxpayers should spend tens of millions of dollars more on renovations to the Augusta County Courthouse so that select Downtown Staunton shopkeepers can make a few extra bucks selling coffee and sandwiches.
That seems to be the position of Staunton leaders, who are now engaging the Staunton Downtown Development Association in their plain dumb pressure campaign on Gov. Glenn Youngkin to block legislation that would allow county voters to decide the next steps on the courthouse in a November referendum.
An email from SDDA Executive Director Greg Beam last week encouraged “friends” to email the governor’s director of legislative affairs, Jesse Lynch.
“The governor has heard from members of Staunton City Council as to the importance of the courthouse, but he needs to hear from the business community,” Beam said in the email. “He needs to hear about the role the courthouse plays in our economic development, our tourism initiatives, and the preservation of our history. He needs to know that the citizens and businesses within the city want to be part of the solution. He needs to hear that the business community supports a veto and pledges to work with the city and county leaders to find a solution that is the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
I responded to Beam’s email to share my view, that the City of Staunton is on the wrong side of this issue.
Beam, in response, said he hopes that “our entire community shares their views and feelings about this issue. I certainly believe that all sides should be heard, and those views taken into consideration.”
Staunton leaders have been pushing the idea that their big issue with the push for a courthouse referendum is that county voters had already overwhelmingly rejected building a new courthouse in Verona back in 2016.
Since that 2016 vote, the county has come under a court order to address the myriad limitations at the current courthouse on Johnson Street.
Back in 2016, the issue was, build a new courthouse in Verona, or don’t, and we’ll live with what we have in Staunton.
That’s not the case in 2022.
It’s either, build a new courthouse in Verona, or build a new courthouse in Staunton, across the street from the current courthouse, at a price tag that will be far, far more costly than what would be the case in Verona.
The reason we know it will be far, far more costly: 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.
All Staunton stands to gain from this new Taj Mahal courthouse is a few extra bucks for select downtown businesses selling sandwiches and coffee to courthouse visitors.
For this, they’re saying, county taxpayers should pay an extra $40 million or $50 million for a new courthouse in a floodplain.
Hey, to be fair, county taxpayers might actually want to pay an extra $40 million or $50 million for a new courthouse in a floodplain so that a few downtown businesses can make extra money selling sandwiches and coffee to courthouse visitors, but then again, they might not.
I’m not sure why Staunton leaders are against at least asking them the question.
Story by Chris Graham