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The verdict is in: As Benton County justices of the peace weigh what to do with the county's need for courtroom space, they seem determined not to seek a change of venue.

County Judge Barry Moehring a few days back outlined for the Quorum Court five options for moving forward in pursuit of a courts solution. In truth, there's a sixth option, which would be to do nothing. That, however, would most definitely be moving backward.

What’s the point?

One proposal to fix the shortcomings of Benton County’s courts facilities appears to be achievable progress the public might support.

Voters in March resoundingly rejected county leadership's proposal to build an 87,000-square-foot, four-story courthouse in downtown Bentonville. While nobody can read the mind of every voter, it's pretty much accepted that the electorate did not take kindly to the price tag of $30 million or the 54-month, one-eighth cent sales tax that would have paid for a big part of it.

Moehring and the Quorum Court have had a couple of months to lick their electoral wounds. It might be tempting to avoid the subject, but Moehring recognizes the truth: Benton County's courthouse deficiencies need to be addressed. Today, three judges hold court in the historic Benton County Courthouse on the square. Two other judges handle cases in two other downtown buildings converted into courtroom spaces that have never fit the bill as long-term solutions.

The state Legislature in the spring also authorized a new judgeship for Benton County to better disperse the growing workload of criminal and civil cases. That judge will be elected in 2020 and take office the following year, although where that judge will preside remains to be seen. Has a judge ever held court in the open-air space of the square, under the watchful eye of the Confederate soldier?

OK, not really an option. So the county judge enumerated the options as he saw them. That included asking voters to consider, at a general election, the same proposal rejected in the March special election.

It's perhaps a surprise to no one that Moehring and the Quorum Court recognized the futility of that approach. If 62 percent trounced the proposal in March, it would be extraordinary to see a turnaround at a general election.

So what's left?

• A long-term bond (debt), requiring the county to pay more than $1.8 million yearly for a 20-year bond and $1.4 million for a 25-year bond. Such a plan would require voter approval.

• A lease-to-purchase option that would have another group pay to construct the building. The county would then pay a $1.7 million yearly lease. The lease would be subject to annual renewal and appropriation, Moehring said. The county would own the building after 25 years.

• A Southwest 14th Street location near the county jail. The option would cost $38 million, and a building with a basement is estimated at $42 million, according to Moehring.

• A downtown alternative with continued use of the three courtrooms in the historic Benton County Courthouse. The old jail area behind the courthouse would be demolished and replaced by a building with four courtrooms. The plan would cost less than $15 million. Possible funding would include the sale of two current courts buildings, $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation, funding from reserves and a short-term bond.

Without new revenue (i.e., a tax), any bond measure or lease-to-purchase would demand a seven-figure commitment of payments out of the county's annual budget. That could impact spending on other county responsibilities.

At a recent meeting, members of the Quorum Court informally expressed favor for that last option. It is no long-term solution -- maybe 10 to 15 years, according to Moehring -- but it relieves the immediate pressure to provide space and improve security, a critical component of any judicial system in this day and age.

Is this the best solution? No. A single building such as the one proposed in the March election is the best solution. But building a few new courtrooms in a building next to the historic courthouse may be what's achievable, and that's ultimately what matters on public projects.

It remains an obligation of county government to fix this. It cannot do that without a supportive public, the people served by the system of justice. Benton County's system has been kept together with baling wire, duct tape and spare parts for long enough. Being a growing community with a robust economy cannot just be about new stores to shop in and an ever-expanding list of restaurants in which to dine. The people of Benton County usually take care of business. The judicial system functions beyond most residents' day-to-day living, so perhaps it's forgivable that it's not front of mind for them. But all 270,000-plus residents of the county as well as the businesses that operate there need and deserve an effective judicial system to give people their day in court.

The $15 million plan sounds doable and ends the practice of kicking the can further down the road. As the county also begins discussions about the need for a possible jail expansion, perhaps that might also be future opportunity to find additional space for the courts that would provide a longer-term solution.

Plenty of details remain, but the presentation and straw poll among Quorum Court members is a good start to fixing Benton County's challenge with its courts system.

Commentary on 06/23/2019

Print Headline: Order in the courts

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