Benton County officials eye court building costs

Posted: March 7, 2018 at 1:04 a.m.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County's justices of the peace said Tuesday they will not consider a funding plan for the proposed new courts building that doesn't include voter approval.

"I will not support any option that does not go to the voters," Pat Adams, justice of the peace for District 6, said during the discussion.

Courts building

Benton County’s justices of the peace will continue their discussion on paying for a new $30 million courts building when the Finance Committee meets again. Tom Allen, committee chairman, said he expects to call a special meeting sometime in March. The county hopes to have a funding proposal on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Source: Staff report

The county's Finance Committee was briefed on six financing options for the county's proposed new courts building that could require nearly 4 percent in budget cuts, new property taxes or a temporary sales tax and different combinations of the funding methods.

Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and chairman of the Finance Committee, said he wants the justices of the peace to review the funding options and to make a decision on how the county will proceed at the April committee meeting.

Allen said he would prefer the justices of the peace look at budget cuts before any tax increase.

Mike McKenzie, justice of the peace for District 1, echoed that, saying "Benton County is 'sales taxed to death.'"

Joel Jones, justice of the peace for District 7, said he opposes a long-term bond issue since it calls for paying $9 million in interest.

The justices of the peace voted not to consider any increase in the road millage or using fine and fees as a sole source of funding. The remaining options include a temporary sales tax, budget cuts, or a combination of funding options.

"We've got three good proposals," Allen said. "I'd like for us to consider all three."

The county has to have a ballot question approved by Aug. 28 if the plan requires voter approval and justices want it on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. Allen said he believes the Quorum Court can make that deadline.

The county has been discussing building a new facility to house the circuit court judges, their courtrooms and staffs and other related offices, for several years. The justices of the peace voted last year to keep the court in downtown Bentonville.

Current plans are for an 86,000-square-foot building on a site on Northeast Second Street with space for eight courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms and judges' chambers. It would include space for the circuit clerk, county clerk and other related offices. The county now has six circuit court judges with five housed in the downtown area and the sixth at the Juvenile Justice Center on Melissa Drive. The fourth floor of the new building, with room for two of the eight courtrooms, would be left as a shell and finished when needed. The cost of finishing the fourth floor isn't included in the estimated $30 million cost of the project.

The Quorum Court has said as much as $5 million of the cost could be covered with money from $13 million in unappropriated reserve. The justices of the peace have discussed options for the remaining cost that could include cutting the budget; using fines, fees and forfeitures or other revenue; and seeking a dedicated sales tax.

The county has budgeted $1.5 million in 2018 for architectural and engineering work on the building. That $1.5 million is part of the total estimated cost. If the justices of the peace agree on a funding plan and obtain voter approval, if needed, the county's schedule is for construction to begin early in 2019. Construction is expected to be completed in 24 to 36 months.

NW News on 03/07/2018