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BENTONVILLE -- Benton County's justices of the peace on Thursday agreed to seek more information from voters on how to pay for the proposed county courts building.

The Finance Committee authorized County Judge Barry Moehring to develop plans for a voter research effort. Moehring will report back to the justices of the peace at the committee's Feb. 6 meeting.

County court election

Benton County officials face a March 13 deadline to get a funding plan for the proposed new courts building on the May 22 primary election ballot. An ordinance calling for an election on that date requires three readings by the Quorum Court, meaning the justices of the peace would have to suspend their normal rules and have the ordinance read more than once at either its January or February meetings or hold a special meeting.

Source: Benton County

The decision to do more research may push a vote on paying for the court building past the May 22 primary and into the November general election or a special election if the county chooses to pursue funding that requires a vote.

Tom Allen, justice of the peace for District 4 and committee chairman, said he's not comfortable with a May vote.

"I don't think May is even a possibility," Allen said. We don't even know the costs yet."

Moehring will also bring the Finance Committee a report on the building project with cost estimates and updated architectural drawings at the Feb. 6 meeting.

Pat Adams, justice of the peace for District 6, argued against putting off a vote, saying the Quorum Court has been discussing the project for the past six years.

"We need to ether get on with it or shelve it and get on with the business of the county," Adams said,

The committee discussed information presented by Stephens Inc., bond underwriters on the project. The presentation outlined options for financing through a sales and use tax increase, by bonds financed using revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures and by bonds paid for from general revenue.

Bob Biddle with Stephens provided a range of options with sales tax increases ranging from a 1/8 cent to a full one cent increase. A 1/8 cent tax increase would raise the money needed in 42 months while a one cent sales tax increase would raise the estimated $20 million in six months.

Biddle also showed options for paying the $20 million by borrowing money with a bond issue. Using current revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures, the county could pay about $1.3 million annual debt service until 2043. Using about $2 million from general funds, the county could pay off the bond issue in 2032.

The justices of the peace also discussed paying for the building through cuts in the budget. Allen said he thinks the county can make cuts and have enough money to pay for a bond issue, pointing to the cuts the Quorum Court made a decade ago to make up for lost revenue when Bella Vista incorporated.

Joel Edwards, justice of the peace for District 15, backed Allen on the proposal to make budget cuts.

"I believe there are places in the county where people are spending money they don't have to spend," Edwards said. "I believe we could absolutely pay for this by cutting."

The county has been working on a courts building for several years. The county is working on a building on Second Street in downtown Bentonville with an estimated cost in the range of $20 million to $25 million. The justices of the peace have discussed funding options to cover the cost.

Early studies identified possible sites downtown and another on county land near the Benton County Jail on Southwest 14th Street. The Quorum Court voted in early 2017 to keep the courts downtown.

Some discussion of the downtown location has included the fate of the old U.S. Post Office used by Circuit Judge Brad Karren. Preservationists want to keep the building, which opened in 1935, intact for some use. The concept now being considered keeps the old building in place and identifies the site of the old county jail and juvenile detention center, east of the courthouse, as potential expansion space.

The current concept shows a building of four stories, with about 86,000 square feet of space, on a site on Northeast Second Street. There will be space for eight courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms and judges' chambers, with additional space for the Circuit Clerk, County Clerk and other related offices. The fourth floor, which would initially be shell space, would house two of the eight courtrooms and related spaces. The county now has six circuit court judges with five of them being housed in the downtown area and the sixth housed at the Juvenile Justice Center on Melissa Drive.

NW News on 01/05/2018

Print Headline: County seeking voter input on court building

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