Board moves ahead with courthouse construction

Published 1:39 pm Monday, June 19, 2017

The jail beneath the Beaufort County Courthouse will be getting more light.

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners will enlist the services of architect Errol J. Warren Jr., who will oversee a project that will bring the entire courthouse and jail into compliance with state fire codes, as well as fix another issue with the basement detention center — the lack of natural light in the facility.

For several years, jail inspection reports from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have pointed out both issues to the Sheriff’s Office. However, it was improper fireproofing in the ceilings of the jail that prompted a letter to Sheriff Ernie Coleman from DHHS stating the problem must be fixed or the jail would be shut down. Now commissioners will be spending an estimated $500,000 to fix both problems.

“(DHHS) has kind of been letting it ride,” said county Manager Brian Alligood of the lack of natural light in the facility. “When they came down this last time about the fireproofing, they said, you got to fix both of them.”

Alligood said for years, there’s been discussion back and forth between the sheriff’s office and state inspectors as to how much light is needed in the jail to fulfill the requirement, but county officials have never gotten an explicit answer.

“They still won’t tell us. They say, ‘You need to have your architect design something and propose it us,’” Alligood said. “That’s what’s frustrating about this whole thing. They’re the regulators, but they won’t tell us exactly what we need to do. I’d just rather somebody say ‘Here’s what you got to do,’ and that’s what we’ll do. There’s no standard for light. It’s all very subjective.”

Since the jail is in the basement of the courthouse and some cell blocks are located in the interior of the building, the work could prove challenging. Alligood said Warren is the last architect on record for the jail, having done the last renovation in 1987. Commissioners approved the contract with Warren unanimously in their regular meeting on June 12. There was no discussion between commissioners about the hire.

“We’ve been essentially told by the state we have to fix this,” Alligood said.

Warren will also be tackling the fire safety problem throughout the courthouse: some ceilings will be replaced; other areas will likely receive spray cementitious fireproofing; others, new insulation, according to a letter from Warren to Alligood.

It was only after DHHS inspectors sent the letter to Coleman about the jail that it was discovered that much of the courthouse did not have fire-rated ceilings. It is unclear whether the courthouse ever had fire-rated ceilings, or whether they had been removed at some point.

The estimated $500,000 project was included in the 2017-18 county budget approved during last week’s meeting as part of a $3 million loan package to make much-needed fixes to several county properties.