Laurens County historic courthouse

Laurens County Council took the first step Tuesday night to remedying years of deferred maintenance on the historic courthouse in downtown Laurens.

This is a beautiful square, a rare asset,” said County Administrator Jon Caime, explaining why a repaired historic courthouse needs to be the centerpiece of the county seat. “We have so much potential here.”

Council approved spending $700,000 to “stabilize” the building. That’s repair rotting wood, fix gutters to keep water from getting into the building and repair existing water damage. The county will not hire a contractor; Caime and others will supervise the work, to be done by sub-contractors.

Council Chairman Dr. David Pitts and council member Diane Anderson voted “no.” Pitts said the money should not be spent now, because work done might have to be ripped out if more extensive restoration work is done later. Anderson said the county needs to develop a plan to pay for its most pressing capital needs now and do all the work at once.

Caime said the first-phase work cannot wait. Conditions get worse every day the stabilization work is delayed, he said. The $700,000 will come from county reserves.

It will take an additional $4.4 million to bring the building up to modern codes (inside, handicapped accessible elevator, etc.). It will take $4 million more to have “a dream courthouse,” like a restoration in York County, consultants have told the council.

The county also is spending $3 million on new HVAC (heating, venting, air conditioning) and roofing on the Hillcrest Square Judicial/Services Center. The council has made a priority of building a new EMS headquarters, but Caime said that project “has stalled.” He said work to stabilize the historic courthouse cannot wait.

It’s all part of Caime’s 2040 Vision plan to position Laurens County for growth and progress toward mid-century. Parts of the vision also include a career center, an agriculture center, and an outdoor recreation area on Lake Greenwood. All this could be financed by a Capital Project Sales Tax, but that would have to be approved in a countywide referendum. Greenwood, Newberry and Abbeville counties have used this kind of money successfully to fund “big ticket” projects. Newberry is restoring a former post office-library to be a county museum.

Caime said Laurens County has $100 million in identifiable capital needs.

Caime said the $700,000 can be paid back to county reserves when the county issues a General Obligation Bond for at least $3.7 million (Hillcrest plus courthouse repairs cost). Council could add $4 million to that for more courthouse renovations, but the county would be close to its debt limit. It could not issue another $2-10 million bond for an EMS headquarters, and $4 million more for a “dream” historic courthouse, without going to a referendum.

Council also was divided on another Hillcrest renovation. While the roof is being installed and HVAC is being replaced, council considered adding a layer of insulation above the ceiling and below the roof. At Hillcrest there are 13 feet of space between the top of the drop ceiling and the bottom of the roof.

There is no clear evidence that this work will provide a reasonable “return on investment,” council was told. Through energy savings, the work might “pay for itself” in 10 years, council was told.

Anderson said it’s an investment worth making. Pitts said schools generally do not have this extra layer of installation (he is assistant superintendent for operations of School District 56).

The expense -- $65,000 – was turned down on a 4-3 vote. Council members Anderson, Joe Wood and Kemp Younts voted “yes”; Chairman Pitts and members Jeffrey Carroll, Garrett McDaniel and Stewart Jones voted “no.”