The battle over the future site of the Prince William County seat has become so fierce that it may lead to the firing of the county executive, threaten the job of the planning director and endanger the re-election of at least one supervisor.
The decision to keep the courthouse, jail and county administration in the independent city of Manassas or develop a new $18.3 million government complex at Independent Hill will be made in a referendum on March 2, which will affect growth patterns in Prince William County for years to come.
The issue has divided the County Board of Supervisors into a constant 4-to-3 split on as eries of votes, has pitted the county's two newspapers in editorial combat and has produced two consultants' reports with widely varying estimates of costs to the taxpayer.
The city of Manassas, which became independent from the county in 1975, court house-related businesses such as title companies and law firms and western Prince William supervisors have been working to keep the county seat in the city.
Supervisors from the rapidly growing eastern end of the county have been leading the push for a new site, contending that Manassas should not get the economic spinoff from the courts and roughly 450-county employes working in the city.
The supervisors had been pushed into a courthouse decision by the likelihood that they soon would be ordered by the county Circuit Court to build a new jail. The jail site would, in reality, determine the courthouse site.
After studies by the county staff and O'Malley and Associates, a Baltimore consulting firm, the board settled on a 150-acre tract in the southwest corner of the intersection of Routes 234 and 619.
The referendum will have four separate questions: Should the county seat be moved? Should $6.4 million in courthouse bonds be issued? Should $4.7 million in jail bonds be issued? And, should $7.2 million in bonds be issued to financial administrative offices?
O'Malley estimated the cost of building the government center in Independent Bill at $18.3 million while the cost of putting the same facilities in Manassas would be $17.5 million plus $750,000 for acquisition of more land for the future.
O'Malley also found the county operating out of 24 separate buildings - including old schools, apartments and houses - with half of them leased at a cost of $157,000 a year. The study also found that 86.5 percent of the county would live within 20 minutes of Independent Hill compared to 39.5 percent for Manassas. Only 3.6 percent of the county would be more than 25 minutes driving time from the new site compared to 33.9 percent for Manassas.
The cost of the bond package to the taxpayer would be 23 cents per $100 assessed value added to the real estate tax in 1980. That rate would drop to 16 cents in 1984 and average 11 cents over 20 years.
Opponents of the move attacked the O'Malley estimates for the new site as too low and a study financed by Manassas stated that the county could save $5.7 million by staying in the city. The Manassas City Council also offered to pay the county $2 million in cash and $400,000 in services if the courthouse was not moved.
While the issue is being heavily publicized and debated before citizens' groups and clubs across the county, neither side is predicting a heavy turnout of voters and some estimates go as low as 10 percent of the [TEXT OMMITTED FROM SOURCE]
With a special election to be held on a Thursday and bond issues instead of candidates on the ballot, both sides say the victory could go to the organization with the best "get-out-the-vote" drive.
With tension mounting, planning director Jeff Middlebrooks last week submitted a bitter letter of resignation. He has supervised planning for the prospective move.
"As the courthouse issue has developed after the decision was made, genuine debate over the publicly policy has degenerated into acrimony and divisiveness . . . The chances of returning to normal after March 2 are declining daily," Middlebrooks wrote.
"Now that motive and integrity are integral elements of the debate, the ability to work productivity is destroyed. This atmosphere is not likely to disappear, regardless of the outcome of the referendum," he said.
Middlebrooks also wrote that ". . . the lack of any kind of management structure or support makes my position untenable. The senior staff are demoralized . . . The very best and most dedicated department heads and middle-level personnel are adrift . . . I would hope the board will accept the need and act to review the entire organization and fabric of the government."
That was a clear attack on County Executive Clinton Mullen with whom Middlebrooks had often been at odds. Then during a closed-door meeting with the board from which Mullen was excluded, Middlebrooks withdrew his resignation. He has refused to discuss the situation further.
With that unstable situation existing on the staff, the board met Tuesday in executive session with Mullen. The parties refused to say what took place, but several board members said that severance pay for Mullen was discussed.
One member, who declined to be identified, said that the board and Mullen had reached a basic understanding to provide for "an orderly transition" with Mullen to resign in the near future, probably sometime after the courthouse referendum.
Mullen, who holds a bachelor's degree from Columbia and a master's from the University of Pennsylvania, has been county executive since October, 1974. Neither of his two immediate predecessors had been able to survive a year in the often turbulent county government.
Mullen had carefully avoided taking any public stance on the courthouse issue, but if that position made no outright enemies it also developed no allies. And, according to some county staff members, Mullen's aloof and humorless personality never really fit in in Prince William.
"You have to make decisions in that job that make enemies, both on the staff and on the boards," said one county employe. "Four years is a normal lifespan for a county executive."
Andrew J. Donnelly, Dumfries District supervisor and the only eastern board member against the move, said, "I was initially in favor of relocating out of the city but the economic benefit which I anticipated was not forthcoming."
Now Donnelly sees the development of a new complex opening up a major area of the county to residential growth, resulting in an increased tax burden instead of tax benefit.
Donnelly, who said his opposition to the move would make his own re-election very difficult, said the bitterness of the fight could lead to problems if the referendum fails. The board majority might still be reluctant to put money into buildings in Manassas, he said.