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The safety of city residents could be compromised if Fredericksburg's City Council does not do something soon to upgrade its court facilities, Judge Gordon Willis told council members at a work session last night in the historic circuit courthouse.
"It's not just a business decision, because remember--you have a lawful duty, and if you neglect your lawful duty then there can be repercussions," Willis said after Councilman Brad Ellis commented that the cost of fixing the courts needs to be a major factor in what path the council chooses.
"There will be tradeoffs," Ellis said.
The council is awaiting responses to a request for court-building proposals it threw out to the private sector late last year. Under the schedule envisioned in that document--which could change based on the whim of the council--initial proposals are due March 1, and a final option could be selected by July.
In evaluating those proposals, Willis urged council members not to seek to save money by choosing a short-term fix over something that will last longer.
"If we're not looking at least 30 years out, we're wasting money," he said.
In 2007, Moseley Archictects projected future caseload numbers that drove the need for more courtrooms in the city. Willis said the system is already exceeding those projections by five years, as the Interstate 95 corridor and the density of housing--particularly rental properties--in the city drive crime rates up.
Willis discouraged council members from spending time looking at developing a regional courts system with a neighboring locality to share some of that burden.
"I think you're going to find it's not possible," Willis said.
Although not common under Virginia's structure of independent cities, some localities do share court facilities, including Winchester and Frederick County and James City County and Williamsburg.
Councilman Fred Howe said Fredericksburg, with the lowest median household income in the region and limited raw land for growth, has a very limited ability to pay higher taxes for a facility that could cost $30 million to $40 million or more.
Willis would not address the matter of how high taxes would need to rise to pay for new courts, but he said the cost is part of the burden of being a city.
"It's a cost that you have to bear to live in the city and get all the benefits of living in the city versus living in the county," Willis said. "We are a relatively small community. We all know each other socially, we have children who've gone to school together, and we are a close-knit community. You don't get that out in the counties as much because they are growing rapidly."
Howe and Mayor Tom Tomzak both suggested that the high cost of city services, including the courts complex, might one day threaten Fredericksburg's status as an independent city.
Councilwoman Kerry Devine rebutted the possibility that city status might be in danger, but she didn't disagree that the idea of raising taxes to build new courts is tough to embrace.
"It's not for lack of political will; it is the turmoil we have all experienced in the economy," she said.
As the work session ended, there was no real indication of what direction the courts deliberations will take this spring.
Lasting consensus on how to solve the security and capacity problems in the courts has eluded the council for years, and members have changed direction before after committing to a particular plan.
Emily Battle: 540/374-5413