From this editorial space, we backed the well-researched and reasonable plan County Judge Barry Moehring and the Quorum Court laid out to solve the persistent insufficiency of Benton County's judicial facilities.
After voters on Tuesday resoundingly defeated the proposal to build a four-story, modern courthouse near the Bentonville square, the message from the county judge (an administrative function) and the judiciary's circuit judges was all it really could be: We'll soldier on and make do even as the workload in Benton County demands the creation of a new judgeship.
What’s the point?
The people have spoken and rejected a proposal to build a new courthouse for Benton County, but the need for a solution remains.
We're sure there's a closet somewhere the county can convert into a new courtroom. Maybe they can just set up some folding chairs under the watchful eyes of the Confederate soldier in the downtown square?
But the people have spoken and the only proper response from elected leaders responsible for the long-term health and well-being of vital public services is this: Back to the drawing board.
The need to address the disjointed collection of courtrooms that the county's judicial system has become is no less critical than it was a week ago. Nobody argued the need. But as with any project of similar nature, the possible variations to solve it are many. That's why Benton County's elected leaders have been discussing a plan for years -- decades, really.
So what convinced voters to reject the first formal ballot measure on the courts facility in more than 20 years?
Was it the tax? County leaders chose to go with the smallest tax increment possible, one-eighth percent, for a duration of 54 months. Would it have been more palatable to suggest a full 1 percent sales tax for a much shorter period? Or was any tax at all offensive to the average voter? Some critics suggested the county should have developed more long-range planning so that it could tuck away a million here and a million there to cover the costs within existing budgets. That's a lot easier said than done, but that's never stopped critics from imagining big piles of cash just laying around in a county vault someplace.
The location of a new courts building has been contentious for years. Former County Judge Bob Clinard, who Moehring defeated more than two years ago, wanted it built near the Benton County jail, where the county already owns land and where inmate transfer ostensibly could happen easily and securely. But Moehring and the Quorum Court, with plenty of encouragement from downtown Bentonville promoters, opted to propose keeping the courts downtown.
Voters may have been influenced by allegations the proposed structure was simply too much. Local Libertarians made it their mission to call for a less expensive building. We thought the building was the right mix of security, public space for families, witnesses and other court observers, secure space for inmates, judges, staff and jurors. But we suppose one could put the courts in a metal shop building if that meets the public's expectations.
Perhaps voters were simply telling county leaders they're content with Benton County having a slipshod courts system limited by its facilities.
That last one is hard to accept. So much growth is happening in Benton County. It's stunning to watch almost every aspect of Bentonville and Rogers and smaller communities advance into the 21st century. Why not the courts?
Courts are a public responsibility every bit as important to the community as law enforcement, fire protection and ambulance service. Although most people will never set foot in a courtroom, it's vital that the public support courts that can efficiently and effectively adjudicate criminal and civil cases. Ignore the needs of the system long enough, and the judicial functions will start to deteriorate. The last thing county residents want is a system that gets bogged down in handling criminal cases.
We hope those who voted against Tuesday's ballot measure will take the opportunity to communicate with county leaders, such as Moehring or their justice of the peace on the Quorum Court, with information that can help them discern a future course of action. Benton County can ill afford to wait another 20 or 30 years to propose another solution.
Commentary on 03/16/2019
Print Headline: Courting the voters