After a wide-ranging discussion about the poor condition of the Edgartown courthouse due to deferred maintenance, the Dukes County advisory board voted this week to put $150,000 toward repairs on the 1858 brick building that stands in the center of town.
The advisory board voted unanimously Wednesday to move $150,000 from the county budget reserve fund into a newly created capital expenditures fund. The vote took place during a joint session of the county advisory board and the county commissioners.
The $150,000 will be used to upgrade the electrical system of the county courthouse. County manager Martina Thornton said that while other smaller projects need to be addressed at the courthouse, electrical wiring is the first priority.
The courthouse was built in 1858 and expanded in 1954. It houses four courts — superior, district, probate and juvenile — in addition to the Registry of Deeds, a law library and probation offices. Because the courts are state functions, the commonwealth rents the building space, using a reimbursement system. As a result, 81 per cent of building-related expenditures are ultimately reimbursed by the state, country treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders said.
There is currently $331,000 in the county reserve fund. Earlier this year, because of a large surplus in the fund, the county returned $150,000 to the six Island towns, while another $150,000 was put toward the other post-employment benefits (OPEB) fund for county employees.
A number of people who work in the courthouse attended the meeting. Some discussion centered on the idea of turning over ownership of the building to the state.
But clerk of courts Joseph E. Sollitto Jr. said regardless of ownership, there is urgency in the need to repair the courthouse.
“If the county is going to keep it, they really need to do something to fix it up,” Mr. Sollitto said.
Benjamin Hall, a local attorney who attended the meeting, said in the past fellow lawyers have pooled funds to address some of the minor problems at the courthouse. This summer he had asked bar members to help pay for new air conditioning units for the building, only to find out that the current electrical system would not support the upgrade. The system would likely not support future computer system upgrades, Mr. Hall said, and the building is not wireless-compatible right now.
He said high humidity in the courthouse also puts historic documents stored there at risk.
“It’s a small amount of money to preserve the history of our Island,” Mr. Hall said. “I urge you to give that amount of money to the courthouse.”
Assistant district attorney Laura Marshard echoed the sentiment.
“It’s the only courthouse, I think, in the state that’s not air-conditioned,” she said. In summer, she said, windows must be left open in the upstairs courtroom, and street noise becomes a distraction during courtroom procedures. Mrs. Marshard also raised the issue of space within the courthouse, which is no longer enough to accommodate the needs of the four courts. Mr. Sollitto said that when the building was first constructed, it served only as a superior court. County commissioner Tristan Israel said even if the state were to take over ownership of the building, it would likely be a lengthy process and would not address the current need for renovations.
“I think there is an urgency no matter what direction we take,” county commission chairman Thomas Hallahan said. “There’s an urgency that has to be addressed yesterday.”
The transfer of funds was approved, but members of both the county commission and advisory board said they found the piecemeal approach to addressing upkeep troublesome.
“We have to have best use of that space over the next 25, 30, 50 years,” said commissioner Christine Todd. “I think in order to do that it may behoove us to hire . . . an engineer, so we’re seeing the big picture of what needs to be done to bring that building up to speed [and] not having to revisit this issue.”
Advisory board member Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd agreed. “One of the reasons I think [the building] is in such poor shape is reliance on surpluses rather than asking towns for money,” he said.
Advisory board chairman Arthur Smadbeck said a capital expenditures fund probably should have been in the budget from day one. “But we didn’t have the luxury [then] of having surpluses. We had so much expenses and everything was [already] dedicated,” he said.
Mr. Smadbeck said the county should still bring projects before the towns for CPC funding, particularly for historic buildings such as the courthouse.
“They’ve been, up to this point, generous,” he said.
The advisory board agreed to discuss further the issue of ownership and potential expansion of the courthouse as part of an ongoing county visioning process.
The board also discussed revenue from Cape and Islands license plate sales. Revenue from the plates, which totals about $110,000 annually, is intended to be used for economic development and tourism, Ms. Thornton said. It was historically used for beach management and water testing, she said, but these no longer fall under the scope of the county. The monies go into the county general fund. The two boards discussed creating a separate fund for the revenues, as well as returning revenues to the towns, but came to no conclusion on the matter.