Berkeley renovations: County government services would be upgraded under 15-year plan

Jennie Daniels (center), Catherine Ellis (left), Sarah Porcher (foreground) and Ella Liferidge work on word puzzles and read at the Berkeley Senior Center in Moncks Corner on Friday.

Wade Spees

MONCKS CORNER -- Berkeley County officials have embarked on a major renovation of government offices that are scattered around town.

They say it's not possible to calculate exactly how much the $50 million, 15-year plan will cost the average taxpayer, but the estimate is no more than a few dollars a year. In return they promise a wide range of service upgrades, including the jail, judicial system, health department, social services, Head Start, senior center, public works, roads and bridges and libraries.

The plan involves buying land, tearing down old buildings and putting up new ones, and a series of space swaps that some have likened to musical chairs or dominoes.

Some of the steps are years in the future, some already have begun, and others soon will head to council for approval.

The plan started about three years ago with complaints of space problems at the judicial complex, according to Supervisor Dan Davis. The jail was overcrowded, there were not enough parking spaces around the courthouse, and the solicitor's office was stressed for space, among other complaints.

The Berkeley County courthouse and jail are a block off West Main Street on California Avenue. It's a residential neighborhood where neighbors aren't ready to sell to give the county more office space, according to Davis.

There was room to expand the jail, and that project is almost done. The nearby Berkeley County Health Center looked like a good spot for the judicial annex. The health center is on West Main Street in the old Berkeley County Hospital. But the health department and other offices that occupy the building would have to be relocated.

In 2008, council hired Carter Goble Lee and McCreary Snow Architects to come up with a plan.

Among other things, the consultants recommended buying at least 7 acres for a new health and human services campus. That would free up the health center building for the judicial annex.

Last March, council unanimously approved a bond for almost $10 million for several of the projects the consultants recommended, including $1.2 million to buy land for the health and human services campus.

Davis wants to buy the old fairgrounds off U.S. Highway 52 North for the health and human services campus. Land not needed for the campus could be sold. He said he expects council to consider the proposal later this month.

The campus also would house the Department of Social Services. DSS has two offices in town, one in a warehouse near the Public Works and Roads and Bridges complex on Live Oak Drive and another on Gulledge Street near the Berkeley County School District headquarters off East Main Street.

The Head Start center also could move to the health and human services campus, Davis said. Head Start also operates out of the warehouse near the Public Works and Roads and Bridges complex on Live Oak Drive. Having children next to heavy equipment going in and out of the complex has never been ideal, Davis said.

"One of the objectives in all of this is to get all the civilians away from the public works complex," Davis said.

Meanwhile, the Berkeley County School District has applied for a grant to take over Head Start, Public Information Officer Kathie Sizemore said.

The plan also includes expanding or moving the Berkeley County Senior Center. The center could be expanded on-site by demolishing a vacant magistrate's court building beside it.

Officials are also discussing moving the senior center to another space. One possibility is the library headquarters on Library Street. The library headquarters could move into the Head Start space if the school district gets the contract to take over the program, freeing up the library building for the senior center.

Whatever the outcome of this game of musical chairs, Berkeley Seniors Director Tonya Sweatman said she has been looking forward for room for activities.

"We're exploding," she said. "The growth has been phenomenal."

The recent $10 million bond will also pay to finish the jail annex, a new library in Hanahan, and renovations at the public works complex.

"We're trying to stick with the plan," Davis said. "These folks (the consultants) are telling us this is the best use of the dollars we have."

Finance Director Kace Smith said there are too many variables to estimate how much the $10 million bond might add to tax bills, but it should not cost the owner of a $200,000 house more than $5 or so, based on how much residents have paid for county bonds in the past.

She said no sales-tax rebate money is designated to repay the bond.

Whatever the amount, it's too much for Linda Riney of Cross, who is part of a group of critics who say Davis spends too much taxpayer money on government projects.

"Taxes are already too high," she said. "These are projects that the county doesn't really need and nobody really wants."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.