BENTONVILLE — Benton County’s justices of the peace apparently will decide how to pay for the $30 million court building without any professional research on voter opinions and preferences.
Benton County’s justice of
the peace will consider funding options for a new courts building when the Finance
Committee meets at 6 p.m. on March 6 in the Quorum Courtroom at the County Administration Building, 215 E. Central Ave. in Bentonville.
County Judge Barry Moehring tabled his proposal to hire a market research firm to examine voters opinions on the court building project when justices of the peace were split on the merits of his plan.
A straw vote after a lengthy discussion at the end of Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting showed seven justices of the peace opposed the polling while six favored the proposal.
Moehring said Wednesday the Quorum Court has the responsibility to pay for the courts building, and he respects their choice of how to proceed.
“My role was to bring them a building and the cost and to facilitate their next steps for how to pay for it,” he said. “My next step would have been to take the temperature of the voters. What I heard last night was many members of the Quorum Court believe they can do that on their own.”
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 estimates for 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 polling work would have gauged voter opinion on the different funding options.
“My role was to bring them a building and the cost and to facilitate their next steps for how to pay for it.”
— Barry Moehring, county judge
Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and chairman of the Finance Committee, said he plans to review funding options at the committee’s March meeting and to ask for a decision in April. 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.
“But we have to be mindful of the time. It could sneak up on us real quick,” he said.
Allen said he favors a bond issue, paid from revenue, to finance the building. While a temporary sales tax sounds attractive, he said, he’s concerned voters will reject any tax increase. Delaying the project because of a failure at the November election will only increase the cost to the county, he said.
“I just don’t think it’s the wisest thing to do,” he said of a tax proposal. “I know budget cuts will be painful, and we’re looking at 2.5 or 3 percent of our budget. But we had about $3 million returned this year from the 2017 budget. To me, that proves that we can operate with less.”
Allen said he favored the voter survey.
“I think it would have given us some useful information,” he said. “It was disappointing for me that we had such a split opinion on the court.”
Michele Chiocco, justice of the peace for District 10, said she opposes a bond issue because she doesn’t like paying interest, fees and other costs or putting the county into a long-term debt situation. Chiocco also said she doesn’t think the county needs to pay professional pollsters to get the views of the voters.
“I think with social media, email and other ways of communication, it’s something the county should be able to do,” she said.
The county is holding a series of town hall meetings, and the courthouse project has been the main topic of discussion. Sue Elverston of Pea Ridge attended the meeting in her city and is a regular attendee at county meetings. She said asking random residents questions about a courts building or about tax increases might not generate really useful information.
“A lot of people probably aren’t very knowledgeable on the courthouse,” she said. “I’m pretty sure most people will say they don’t want a tax increase. So I don’t know that you’ll get an accurate picture. Nobody wants to increase taxes, but if you can take time and explain to them why we need a new courts building, I think they’re more likely to support it.”
Pat Adams, justice of the peace for District 6, has been the leading advocate of a temporary sales tax to pay for the courts building. Adams said he still favors that plan, and he doubts the need for a survey of voters.
“If you do that and it comes back negative, are we going to cancel the project?” he said. “It’s obvious we’ve got two or three choices in how to do this. I think we’ve done a real good job getting to this point. I think it’s time to take the next step. I think most of the negativity you hear is people who are going to say no to anything. They’re going to squawk about anything. For a short-term fix to a long-term project, I think a temporary sales tax, one that can’t be renewed, is the way to go.”
Tom Sissom can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at NWATom.
Tom Allen said he favors a bond issue, paid from revenue, to finance the building.
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