MT. VERNON — On a 10-2 vote, the Jefferson County Board has approved a voter referendum for the March 2014 to ask the public to fund courthouse renovations.
The wording of the ballot approved by the County Board is as follows: “To pay for public safety purposes, shall Jefferson County be authorized to impose an increase on its local sales taxes by one-quarter of one percent. This would mean that a consumer would pay an additional 25 cents in sales tax for every $100 of tangible personal property bought at retail.” The wording of the referendum is set by state statute, according to State’s Attorney Doug Hoffman.
Board members Jeremy Hall and Joey McDermott voted in opposition. Board member John Keele, who recently had surgery, was absent.
During the public input portion of the meeting, Bob Shaw said he was both disappointed and surprised by the recommendation made by the Courthouse Renovations Committee last week to proceed with a motion to accept the original bid of $7.62 million from M360.
“I’m disappointed because there was no support in the town hall meetings for an all or nothing approach. What there was support for was doing something. The theme of the meetings was let’s do it in a pay as you go way,” Shaw said. “Those affected the most can least afford it. I urge you to find a more responsible way of dealing with this. There are variations of ‘pay as you go’ that could be adopted.”
Public members, as well as board members, seemed confused by the contradiction in the motion made last week and
the end result of Monday’s motion, which doesn’t establish an amount on the project.
Jim Engeman, a representative of M360, told board members though the county is not committed to the $7.62 million, adding, “You can do anything. Right now, our goal is to get firm bidding in place.”
“What we’ve done is take a muddy situation and pour in more water and dirt, so to speak,” stated Hall. “We originally we’re going to ask taxpayers for $7.6 million to repair the courthouse and now we have asked for a blank check with no statutory connection to how it will be spent. At this point, it had to go to the voters, but I believe we as a board failed the residents in Jefferson County by being narrow-minded on the issue of courthouse repairs. Very early in this process we should have examined other alternatives, such as pay as you go, a high number of steps at a lower cost each or reassigning existing facilities.”
He added, “I voted against this measure for its lack of transparency with taxpayers. There is nothing in our action this evening that assures residents we will stop spending when the need has vanished. In government, the needs always seem to grow as the revenue stream increases.”
Board Chairman Robert White, in a prepared statement, said the county has been dealing with jail issues since 1983, and as a result of dealing with two jails the courthouse “has been subjected to break down form of maintenance.” He added the Board is at the point where unplanned decisions will have to be made in the near future.
“While the County Board’s action to put the jail on the property tax may be sufficient to handle one of these major systems (HVAC, electric, plumbing), it would not be enough to cover all of them. Absent any other revenue, this would be the option of last resort for any board, but the only area that would provide the money needed to undergo renovation for any of these systems failing. That is why personally I will be voting yes to ask the public to vote for an an additional Public Safety Sales Tax. This is the only clear path I can see from where I sit to accomplish the needed renovation of our courthouse.”
White also said if the voters approve the referendum, he is committed to advancing a board resolution that calls for continuous abatement of property tax that funds the General Corporate levy.
White said while the idea of purchasing one of the high school buildings had high appeal, the availability of the buildings was uncertain and the earliest date occupancy could take place is July 2015, and the county may not have that much time prior to experiencing a system failure.
“The idea a building new sounds exciting until you factor in the cost to procure land, build and demolish the existing courthouse, not to mention the disruption of services and high potential of cost over-runs,” he stated.
Board member James Malone said, “I think it’s fair to put it on the ballot and let the people decide.” And Jim Laird added, “I feel it’s in the voters hands.”
McDermott questioned the timing of the referendum, eluding to several taxing districts asking for increased revenues from voters. He added that truckers won’t stop in Mt. Vernon because of its high sales tax, but they will stop in Ina.
Hoffman said, “I’m glad the taxpayers will have a say on this issue.”
White added, “There is nothing fun and exciting about this. All you are doing tonight is putting the question on the ballot to start a revenue stream.”
“We’re giving it to the people and letting them decide,” added Courthouse Renovations Committee Chair Randy Edwards. “I don’t think the Board is wrong in doing that.”