$31 million in draft Senate budget could fund new Hoke County courthouse

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • The State Senate budget draft includes $31 million in grant funding for Hoke courthouse repairs and renovation.

Senate Bill 105, the Appropriations Act 2021, is only a draft of the state budget. It’s subject to changing as legislators work to add, remove or otherwise adjust what’s included. The bill was first introduced back in February.

State Sen. Ben Clark of Hoke and Cumberland counties was one of four Democrats who joined Republicans in voting recently for a state budget proposal in the General Assembly. The budget could bring infrastructure money to both counties, the legislator said Monday.

Democrats Sen. Kirk deViere of Fayetteville, Sen. Paul Lowe of Winston-Salem and Sen. Don Davis of Greenville voted with Clark and state Senate Republicans to pass the proposal. Republican state Senators Brent Jackson, Kathy Harrington and Ralph Hise were the primary bill sponsors.

Clark noted that he expects “numerous” changes before all is said and done with the budget.

“The budget that passed out of the N.C. Senate is not the final one; it is the initial one.  This document will go through numerous changes before a final one is voted on,” he wrote in an email Monday.

Asked about his decision to vote aye on the budget and what benefits it might have for Hoke County, Clark said that there were several reasons why he voted for the draft proposal. Bringing state funding for infrastructure in his district was one of those reasons.

“I voted yes on the initial budget for several reasons including significant funding for critical infrastructure projects in Hoke and Cumberland counties, expansion of Medicaid to women post-childbirth, and the removal of language usurping authority from the N.C. Board of Elections,” Clark said in an email.

Local leaders have been in discussions for about two years now to address condition problems and lack of space at the historic Hoke County Courthouse. In 2019 Superior Court Judge James Webb ordered inspections of the building. The resulting reports showed multiple safety concerns at the facility.

While county commissioners put money into adding lighting, fixing a bathroom and painting the interior among other improvements, the century-old building doesn’t have enough space to suit the county’s modern judicial system needs.

Hoke County Commission Chairman Harry Southerland announced plans last year for the county to build a new courthouse, and added that a new county administration building could be part of the project, too. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process in 2020, but earlier this year the commissioners approved sending out a request for qualifications. The RFQ issued in April asked interested companies to propose a plan for designing and building a new county courthouse and county admin building.

The county is already committed to building the James A. Leach Aquatics and Recreation Center, featuring a public swimming pool, gyms and playground on U.S. 401 in East Hoke. Officials broke ground earlier this year on the project, and got approval last month from the Local Government Commission for about $20 million in bonds to pay for the construction.

Judicial seats in district 19D

The draft of the state budget proposal also contains a section specifying that one of the four judgeships in Judicial District 19D, which includes Hoke and Moore counties, will only be open to candidates who live in Hoke County. Candidates seeking office for the other three seats may come from either county, according to the text of the bill.

“The qualified voters of District Court District 19D shall elect all judges established for District 19D in subsection (a) of this section, but only persons who reside in Hoke County may be candidates for one of the judgeships, and only persons who reside in Hoke or Moore County may be candidates for the remaining judgeships,” the document states.

The seat established solely for residents of Hoke County is the judgeship currently held by Judge Regina Joe. The bill designates the other three judges’ seats, currently held by Judge Steve Bibey, Judge Don Creed and Judge Warren McSweeney, are open to candidates who live in either Hoke or Moore.

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