Darlington County Council gets options for courthouse

February 20, 2019
The Darlington County Council is considering what to do about the aging Darlington County Courthouse.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Don’t expect another courthouse referendum in Darlington County anytime soon.

Darlington County Council members now have four options they can consider as they decide what to do about the aging Darlington County Courthouse.

County voters rejected a proposal to implement a one-cent sales tax to fund a $20 million courthouse project in a referendum last November. Voters were asked whether to fund building a new judicial center and government administration building – either in a single facility or two – and either through new construction or renovation to the existing courthouse. The vote was 11,747 no to 10,618 yes.

During a work session Monday morning at Darlington Raceway, council members received a summary of a study by an engineering and consulting firm on possibilities ranging from refurbishing the existing courthouse to building new facilities to house court and administrative office functions. Probable costs for the projects range from approximately $20.4 million to a little more than $29 million.

The possible options outlined in the report include refurbishing the existing courthouse with a two-story, 10,000-square-foot addition with a courtroom at a probable cost of approximately $26.3 million; demolishing the existing courthouse and building two new single-story structures, one 33,000 square feet and one 20,000 square feet, at a probable cost of more than $20.4 million; refurbishing the existing courthouse for governmental and administrative functions and building a new offsite 33,000-square-foot courthouse and judicial center at a probable cost of a little more than $29 million; or demolishing the existing building and replacing it with a new offsite three-story, 55,000-square-foot combined operations courthouse with a probable cost of more than $20.7 million.

County Administrator Charles Stewart said if the council wants to pursue another referendum, it needs to let him know so he can begin the process of preparing for one.

But council members appear to be in no rush to move forward with that. Because the meeting was a work session only, the council took no action.

Council member Le Flowers of Darlington said if the county had $40 million on hand now to build a new courthouse, it would still take three years to do it.

Stewart said more immediate needs exist regarding space, security, safety and other issues with the courthouse that need to be addressed in the shorter term and said he will be bringing proposals and recommendations related to those for the council to consider. He said he will focus on those issues for now rather than devote any time or effort toward preparing for another referendum. Some council members seemed to agree with that.

The county owns some other property in the downtown area of Darlington, and Stewart said the county also will look at possibly acquiring some other properties in the Darlington area that could help address the courthouse issue.

The council has been considering what to do about the aging courthouse in downtown Darlington for some time and decided last year to put the measure on the ballot in a referendum in last November’s general election.

Construction started on the existing courthouse in 1963, and the building opened its doors in 1965. It is showing its age and is in significant disrepair.

Officials say doing nothing about the courthouse could result in the South Carolina Supreme Court moving all judicial functions from the Darlington County courthouse to a neighboring county.

In other matters, the council is expected to take up a couple of new ordinances in the coming weeks, one suspending the provision of state law that prevents many businesses from opening before 1:30 p.m. on Sundays and allowing them to open on Sunday morning. Another proposed measure would allow Darlington County property owners to pay their property taxes in installments rather than all at once.

Council members received copies of similar ordinances from other counties that already have them in effect.

Councilman Robert L. “Bobby” Kilgo Jr. said he asked for the ordinance on the Sunday sales law, or “blue laws,” to help make Darlington County businesses competitive with those in counties that already have that exemption on their books. Kilgo said he does not shop on Sunday morning, but he said people who want to do so should be able to.

He said the sample ordinances all include protections for employees who want Sundays off for religious reasons.

An ordinance providing for property tax payments in installments was requested at a recent council meeting by a Darlington County resident who said having to pay all of his property taxes at one time creates too heavy of a financial burden.

If the council adopts such an ordinance by July 1, it would become effective in 2020, Stewart said.

Proposed ordinances for both the Sunday sales and the property tax installment payments are expected to be introduced for first reading as early as March. Each measure will have to go through three readings.