County moves file system after weight threatens to collapse courthouse

PENDER COUNTY (WWAY) — After a hurricane, years of planning, work, and money, the renovated Pender County Courthouse could be facing more trouble.

Weeks after the historic courthouse grand reopening after Hurricane Florence, court staff began to notice leaks around the building, especially the courtroom. When an architect who worked on the rebuild inspected the problem, he discovered the floors couldn’t hold the weight of the courthouse’s immense filing system. The system spans several rooms on all three floors. Now, the county is packing back up and moving files wherever they can.

“There’s no structural issues, there’s no problem with the building… it’s just the amount of paper. It’s the amount of files,” said County Manager Chad McEwen. “We’re working with a property owner in downtown Burgaw to lease space,  but there’s just not been anything available within convenient distance of the courthouse.”

Clerk of Courts Elizabeth Craver and her staff are packing up thousands of files. In the meantime, it could take longer to request and find public records.

“It may be something where it would be later on that day or the following day before we could actually get the files over here,” Craver said. “Because we do not have the man power to all day go back and forth to pull files.”

Though the court’s files have grown in three years since evacuating for Hurricane Florence (estates files have grown 25 percent due to COVID-19 deaths), Craver says she and her staff have purged every file they legally can under NC Statue 121-5c, 5b, 137-7, and 137-8,  keeping only original copies. According to Craver, with an iconic courthouse to rebuild in a limited amount of time, there were lapses in communication.

“Files were in three different locations,” she said. “So I don’t think that the people who do not work in here on a daily basis realized there were that many files.”

In a county commissioner meeting November first, architect Charles Boney said the oversight could have been avoided if he was not prevented from speaking to staff and the clerk.

“We were working with our hands tied behind our backs,” he said, “for not being able to consult the actual users… law enforcement people, the clerk, and judges who actually use the building.”

“Yeah, you keep telling us that we’re the problem,” Commissioner (now Commission Chair) David Piepmeyer fired back. “I understand that. I appreciate your concern for the tax payers of Pender County, and I really appreciate that you keep pointing at us as the problem for this.”

Former Commission Chair George Brown said he was not aware of anyone preventing architects from speaking with staff, but did say commissioners attempted to streamline communication with architects for better and easier decision making.

“There were just some communication problems,” Brown admitted. “We needed some decisions to be made and it was kind of like herding cats sometimes. Finally we just had to get our arms around it and say enough. Enough of this. We’ve got to make these decisions. Let’s make them. And we did.”

The county is evaluating several options, including temporarily reinforcing bar joints, building an annex, and moving files online. According to Craven, Pender County Court is subject to state courts, which do not have a finished electronic file system yet. In the state of North Carolina, court clerks must retain the original paper copies of documents until expiration date. Documents can sometimes take decades to expire.

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