About this story
This fall, Forsyth County voters are being asked to approve a six-year extension of the 1-cent sales tax.
The $200 million special purpose local option sales tax, known as SPLOST VII, would fund construction of a new courthouse and expanded detention center in downtown Cumming, among other projects.
Supporters say the measure is not a new tax, rather a continuation from 2013-19 of an existing levy. And as a sales tax, one even visitors would pay when making local purchases, it’s the most fair way to pay for the facilities.
Opponents question the timing and methodology of the proposal. They also wonder about the locations and why the courthouse just can’t be expanded.
Realizing that many readers may not have visited either facility, staff of the Forsyth County News recently toured the existing courthouse and jail.
What follows is a look inside both buildings, with insight from those who work there.
* Pre-election perspective: Inside the jail.
For employees working at the Forsyth County Courthouse, one of several locations where local judicial proceedings occur, making do is just part of the job.
Not only is the building crowded for staff and visitors, there are also security and storage issues for important court documents.
“It’s a logistical nightmare,” said Forsyth County Sheriff’s Lt. Col. D.T. Smith.
Those responsible for security at the courthouse, which dates to 1976, say they fear a situation similar to what occurred six years ago in neighboring Fulton County, when Brian Nichols escaped from custody at the courthouse in Atlanta and killed four people.
In a Nov. 8 referendum, Forsyth voters are being asked to approve a six-year extension of the 1-cent sales tax. The first $101 million of the tax revenue collected would fund construction of a new courthouse in downtown Cumming.
The new facility would be located across East Maple Street from the Forsyth County Detention Center, the expansion of which would also be funded by that portion of the sales tax.
Supporters say the arrangement would enhance security and slash transportation costs and concerns. The current facilities are about three blocks apart.
Opponents disagree, arguing that the courthouse could be renovated and expanded to the side and rear for much less.
Steve Voshall, founder of the Forsyth County Tea Party, made his second tour of the courthouse last week.
“I came out of it saying we could do this for $15 million or less,” he said. “I didn’t walk through that courthouse and see mildew and mold dripping off the ceilings. It’s not that dilapidated.
“We need to put some money in it and renovate it, but it’s not an eyesore. This new building’s going to be so big, it’s going to be a complete eyesore.”
Specific architectural plans for the courthouse have not been released.
Jodi Gardner, Forsyth County spokeswoman, said preliminary plans call for a 110,000-square-foot courthouse, but only about 75,000 square feet would be built initially.
The remaining space could be added on later. The facility is slated to include three Superior Court courtrooms, three State Court courtrooms, a jury assembly room, secure inmate area and court administration.
It would be connected to the expanded detention center by an elevated walkway or tunnel.
The existing courthouse would be repurposed, she said, to house Probate and Magistrate courts, as well as the indigent defense office and the property division of the clerk of court’s office.
In an e-mail, Forsyth County Manager Doug Derrer explained that detailed plans are not necessary when it comes to estimating the cost of building the facilities.
“A firm was hired to conduct a space needs analysis to determine the space and functional requirements for the jail expansion and the courthouse,” Derrer wrote. “Based on that report, the firm estimated the cost of construction.”
He added that the estimated cost was based on several factors and by applying methodology used and accepted throughout the industry.
“Considering the potential cost associated with developing detailed architectural plans and project programming, the fiscally responsible approach is to develop detailed plans after [the referendum] is approved,” Derrer said.
Security a growing concern
The troubles at the courthouse surface in the front lobby.
A recent tour quickly established that the entry room is not designed to accommodate large groups of people. As a result, a long line may form to pass through the security screening, at times stretching outside to the road.
Prospective jurors must wait at the Forsyth County Administration Building, across the street, until they can be moved in groups to the courthouse.
Once inside, they pile into courtrooms and line the narrow halls as they wait to learn if they will be picked for jury duty.
If State Court Judge Russell McClelland’s courtroom is available, jurors may wait in there.
Greg Allen, Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court, explained that up until four months ago a room originally used as the clerk’s office had served as the jury assembly room.
It now houses McClelland’s courtroom, though it is not equipped to securely bring in inmates facing charges.
Because the room is retrofitted as a courtroom, it’s not adjacent to a holding cell as are some of the other courtrooms, said Sheriff’s Deputy Phillip Kelley, who’s assigned to the courthouse.
As a result, civilian traffic on the elevators and in the hallways has to be stopped as inmates are escorted through the building.
“That gives them way too much access to the public,” Kelley said, adding that during arraignments, the process could be repeated as many as 12 times in a short span.
File storage also an issue
Smith, commander of the agency’s headquarters bureau that includes the courthouse, praised the building’s staff for everything they have to arrange.
For high-profile cases, the need for adequate security is even more apparent.
Kelley explained that deputies are challenged not only with protecting the public from inmates accused of heinous crimes, but also ensuring the safety of the inmates from the public.
Those who are brought to the courthouse from the jail arrive in the employee parking lot, at the rear of the building, which is not fenced in or otherwise secure.
Inmates enter the courthouse through the same doors used by staff, as well as the judges and prosecutors who handle their cases.
Another issue is that the locks on the inmate holding cells are not electronic.
Kelley noted that when it comes to security, “key access is archaic at best and inefficient.”
A large trailer in the parking lot houses files before they are sent to a storage facility. Allen said all of the files have been scanned, in the event of a fire, natural disaster or water damage.
“By law, we’re supposed to keep these in a fireproof vault, but we have nowhere to put them,” Allen said.
A fireproof vault is credited for saving documents when the previous courthouse, at the same location, was destroyed by fire in 1973.
Allen noted that there are 857 banker’s boxes full of documents in storage. That arrangement costs the county about $12,000 a year.
He also said all of the files in storage have not been scanned because of a lack of manpower and budgetary concerns.
Confusion over location
In the area of the courthouse designated for Solicitor General Leslie Abernathy and her staff, employees work in tight quarters. Under a stairwell, there’s storage and an office in a spot also known as “the Harry Potter closet.”
“We’ve utilized as much of the space as possible,” Abernathy said.
She explained that only half of her staff works in the courthouse. The other half works across Maple Street in a building leased by the county.
That structure, known as the Stone building, is also the site of the Forsyth County Probate Court offices and courtroom, the law library, pre-trial services and the victim witness assistance program.
The Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office also uses space in the building and the courthouse.
Allen explained that Abernathy can’t put more employees on the first floor of the Stone building, or use it for storage, because the floor can’t support the weight.
Volumes of records of past court proceedings, some dating to the late 19th century, are stored in a room on the bottom floor. That area is also not fireproof.
The courthouse has twice been charred by arson, first around 1900, when the building was made of wood. It was rebuilt out of brick, but torched again some 70 years later.
Forsyth County Probate Court is an expanded jurisdiction court, meaning it is eligible to handle jury trials.
However, the courtroom in the Stone building is not big enough to include jurors and room must be made elsewhere for such situations.
In addition, Probate Court Judge Lynwood “Woody” Jordan Jr. must go through work space used by solicitor’s office employees to get to his bench.
While judges working in the courthouse seem to be shuffled from courtroom to courtroom, there’s another looming dilemma.
The county is eligible for a third Superior Court judge, who would help handle the rising caseload, but there is nowhere to put one and his or her support staff.
Officials acknowledge that a new courthouse may not be the most visible need in the community for some residents.
“If they don’t have to come to court … they just never think of the court,” Jordan said.
Allen said those summoned for jury duty, many of whom live in the county’s more populous south end, often get confused trying to find the courthouse.
Added Jordan, “People often are thinking about [Cumming] City Hall or the [County] Administration Building when they’re asking where the courthouse is.”
Those buildings, both modern and several stories tall, sit on opposite corners from the courthouse.