'Money pit': Dougherty County courthouse maintenance costs draw examination

·4 min read

Jul. 10—ALBANY — A courthouse is a center of much of the civic life of a community; a records repository where births, deaths and marriages are recorded, and marriage ceremonies are performed.

It is also the center where criminal cases are disposed of for defendants and victims, and residents access a variety of services.

During a recent Dougherty County Commission meeting, Chairman Chris Cohilas referred to the county's Judicial Building as a "money pit" that sucks up resources for frequent repairs and maintenance.

Asked to expound on those remarks this week, Cohilas said he was posing a question for future consideration on a sales tax initiative.

"I've spent the better part of 18 years in the courthouse, as assistant district attorney, chief assistant district attorney, a private lawyer and commission chairman," he said. "I've seen a lot of work done. I've seen a lot of money spent.

"I'm just wondering whether or not it is time to consider a new approach in relation to that building."

The courthouse building, completed in the mid-1960s, is beautiful, with great architecture. But it is inefficient, the chairman said.

"Everyone has had the experience of coming in on a Monday on a big calendar call in the dog days of summer when you have 250 people crowded in there," he said. "It gets really hot, and it takes a lot of money to cool it down."

In one large courtroom, the acoustics are terrible, and when a child is a witness in a molestation case, for example, it presents issues.

"You're trying to get him to speak up and he's talking about horrible things," Cohilas said. "It can have a chilling effect on the testimony and the integrity of the courtroom."

The estimated annual maintenance costs for the building are about $400,000, with the majority of that going toward utility costs for cooling and heating the massive structure.

Cohilas said he would like to see county staff do an assessment of the building's costs and look at whether a major overhaul or a new building makes sense in the long-term.

The chairman also questioned the logic of the county paying huge utility bills to the city, while the city pays for space it uses in the building for Albany Municipal Court.

"I've expressed my thoughts with these things that come out of not operating under the same umbrella," he said. "We're spending our collective energy trying to figure out how to push these peanuts back and forth across the table. It's maddening."

As for the courthouse, Cohilas said he expressed his thoughts in an open meeting and anticipates that staff will present an assessment to the commission at some point in the future.

"I think you have to look at other communities," he said. "Colquitt County has a new courthouse. Lowndes County has a new courthouse. Let's look at what the alternatives are."

The county maintains more than 50 structures in its inventory and due to its size and age, the courthouse is one of the more costly to maintain, County Administrator Michael McCoy said. However, the courthouse has been maintained well over the years and has new heating and cooling systems.

"We are constantly making improvements to that building as we do with all our buildings," said McCoy, who pointed to exterior work currently being performed. "It's a night-and-day difference if you saw what the Judicial Building looked like before. We're making quite a big difference."

The building also has had recent electrical work, McCoy said.

"So like with any of our buildings we maintain, we make sure they're as efficient as possible," he said.

On Easter Sunday of this year, a call center employee taking a walk during a break discovered water leaking on the third floor that spread throughout much of the building. The county is still assessing the cost to repair the damage.

The damage delayed the re-opening of courts and will be costly to fix.

"It will be several hundreds of thousands of dollars," McCoy said. "It's a beautiful building. We work tirelessly to make sure it's a safe space, a clean space, a comfortable space, and a space people can conduct their business in."

While part of the commission's job is to assess buildings and plan for the future, the courthouse is not likely to be on the projects list any time soon.

"It would be a massive undertaking," Commissioner Ed Newsome, who chairs the commission's Finance Committee, said. "I think there's some preliminary discussion going on. I don't see it hitting the Finance Committee any time soon."

The county has one construction project in the works that is likely to begin this year or early in 2022 with a new morgue.

"We've got some other issues to fix right now," Newsome said.

Currently the Finance Committee is looking at amendments to the county budget and providing a pay raise for public safety workers. It also is planning to address pay for other employees when a pay study is completed later this year.

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