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Leaders in Benton County who have worked toward a plan to create more courtroom space for the burgeoning judicial system have got to be wondering: What's next, frogs, lice, hail and locusts?

Expanding space for the county's judges and all the court-related activities that relate to them has been part of Benton County's discussions not just for years, but for decades. The county's collection of six circuit judges -- soon to add a seventh -- really ought to get some credit for good behavior. They've waited, and waited, and waited.

What’s the point?

Benton County’s years-long effort to expand and consolidate its courts system continues to seem it’s cursed.

And they'll wait some more.

County Judge Barry Moehring recently announced the shelving of a $15 million to $20 million plan to add four courtrooms to the back of the 92-year-old county courthouse. Why? For the same reason a lot of other things are getting postponed or canceled these days: Covid-19.

"We are facing uncertain financial security for some time," Moehring said. "A major expansion is not going to be proposed in the near future."

It's just the latest setback for a much-needed expansion and consolidation of judicial facilities for Benton County. Back in March 2019, voters rejected a one-eighth percent sales tax increase that would have built an 87,000-square-foot, $30 million courthouse on Northeast Second Street.

That request to voters came to fruition after years and years of study and political evaluations by the Benton County Quorum Court. The growing population in Bentonville, Rogers and the other communities of Benton County has made it clear existing facilities and the existing number of judges was inadequate for the future. The Arkansas Legislature added a judgeship last year, to which Christine Horwart was elected in March. The ultimate goal was to consolidate the several courtroom locations into one efficient complex, but the voters said no.

Even prior to that, lots of time and energy were spent on the issue, hung up for a long time on the question of location. The previous county judge wanted to build a courts facility near the county jail, while others wanted the courts to remain in downtown Bentonville, the seat of county government. Moehring has favored the downtown location, which was also backed with the offer of funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

Now, because of legitimate concerns about how the pandemic will impact the county's finances, Moehring has pulled the plug on the four-court expansion. Now, he said, the county should opt for adding a single courtroom for between $2 million and $3 million. That new courtroom -- along with office space, a lobby and restrooms -- would be assigned to Horwart after she takes office in January.

Given the turmoil in the economy and uncertainty about how long it will last, this modification to the county's plans seems prudent.

We just didn't realize that when people talk of the wheels of justice turning slowly, that applied to courthouse expansions, too.

Commentary on 05/22/2020

Print Headline: As the courthouse turns

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