County purchases building, plans to move DA's office

Barbara Miller
Observer Reporter

The addition of a seventh judge at the Washington County Courthouse will result in some changes inside the more than century-old building.

The county also bought the Caldwell Building across the street from the courthouse for $400,000, finalizing the sale on Tuesday, Aug. 6.

“It’s the quickest closing I’ve been through,” Scott Fergus, Washington County director of administration, said last week. “It’s a good county asset.”

The county commissioners first raised the possibility of purchasing the Caldwell Building last fall.

“We thought we had until the end of the year to get space for a new judge,” Fergus said.

Cecil Township District Judge Traci McDonald-Kemp was chosen by voters from both the Democratic and Republican parties in the primary election four months ago. In late June, she won state Senate approval as Gov. Tom Wolf’s nominee to fill the vacancy that has existed since the Legislature approved a seventh judgeship in 2018 as the fourth-class county approaches the larger third-class status.

McDonald-Kemp is scheduled to take the oath of office Aug. 30, and she will be presiding in a courtroom carved out of the law library that, until recent renovations, had been used by a rotation of senior judges.

Finding room for her chambers and staff, however, triggered other changes within the courthouse.

McDonald-Kemp’s office will not be adjacent to the basement Courtroom No. 7. It will be located on the second floor.

Court Administrator Patrick Grimm and his staff will be moving to what has been for decades the main district attorney’s office in the northwest corner of the building.

Plans call for District Attorney Gene Vittone and 15 employees to take up new quarters later this month across the street from the courthouse on the second floor of the Caldwell Building at 26 S. Main St.

“I have offices in four locations,” Vittone said. In addition to the main DA’s office, there are offices elsewhere for county detectives, victims’ services, two assistants, intake workers and an assistant for specialty courts.

He hoped for a seamless transition with no lapse in computer tracking of the status of prosecutions.

First Assistant District Attorney Dennis Paluso said the DA’s office is “under 1,000 active cases for the first time in 20 years” despite an increase in the county’s population.

The former Caldwell’s Department Store building, which has a rear loading dock, will also be used to store new voting machines the county expects to purchase and deploy before the 2020 presidential election.

County officials discussed a lease with George Sprowls, the Caldwell Building’s owner, but they decided it was more “economically feasible” to buy than to rent for a period of time, Fergus said.

The purchase price discussed last year was $370,000.

“We had negotiated an agreement that fell through,” Fergus said. “At that point, we wanted to look at other options. We were lucky to get a building across from the courthouse.”

Sprowls, in the meantime, had made improvements in the building he planned to lease, which accounted for the additional $30,000 above the purchase price proposed in the prior agreement.

No independent or third-party candidate filed for the seventh seat on the Washington County bench before the Aug. 1 deadline, so McDonald-Kemp’s name will be the only one on the Nov. 5 ballot for a full, 10-year term.