Mt. Vernon Register-News

July 30, 2013

Board weary of renovations

The Register-News

---- — MT. VERNON — Jefferson County Board Chairman Robert White asked for public input on the County Board's action to enter into Phase I for courthouse renovations. Specifically, White wants ideas on how to pay for the renovations.

White had to look no further than the confines of the courthouse to get opinions. Three officeholders — all from White's political party — have indicated they do not support the proposed project in its current form.

State's Attorney Doug Hoffman, Treasurer Dan Knox and Circuit Clerk John Scott jointly distributed a letter to members of the Jefferson County Board on Friday, expressing their concern regarding the County Board's proposal to initiate the first of two phases of renovations.

"Seven months ago, our county government suffered a sudden and drastic loss of close to one quarter of its anticipated revenue with the removal of ICE detainees from our Justice Center. As a result, the budgets of nearly every county office were significantly reduced," the letter begins. "This forced the layoff of over 30 county employees from both the sheriff's office and state's attorney's office. In addition, this forced the use of alternative funding sources to maintain staffing levels in the circuit clerk, county clerk, and treasurer offices and also reduced the staff hours in the public defender's office. At present, the budgets are still reduced, those county employees are still laid off, and the staffing issues remain unchanged. Though it appears our county finances have improved we still stand on shaky ground in terms of monthly cash flow."

The officeholders noted, "We do not disagree our courthouse is in need of repair. However, we cannot in good conscience support a plan that calls for the expenditure of nearly $5 million, for just the first phase, at a time when our county's future is unclear," adding the courthouse is the "people's house," and as a result, the people of the county should have a say when it comes to "placing a substantial debt on their backs" for years to come.

Further, the officeholders state, "Also concerning to us is the board's proposal to use the revenues of the county's public safety tax to help fund this endeavor. As others have noted, a promise was made to the taxpayers of this county that those proceeds would be used exclusively to pay for the debt service of the Justice Center. This provides yet another reason to take this matter to the people of this county."

In conclusion, the officeholders asked the board to reconsider its decision.

"It is our hope that you as a Board will listen to the concerns expressed in this letter and those presented by members of the public in the coming days and will reconsider your proposal. We would appreciate a response to these concerns and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter further should you so desire. Thank you for your consideration."

On a 12-1 vote — with Jeremy Hall voting in opposition — the Board accepted a recommendation from the Public Safety Committee allowing M360 to begin Phase I of courthouse renovations. The estimated cost of the project is $4.66 million.

At the time of the vote, Hall said he voted against the proposal because, "It's too much, too soon." He added, "I can't answer to the people who were laid off, and can't justify spending that kind of money until we find out where we're going to get it." Since the vote was taken, board member Jim Laird has gone on record joining Hall in opposition to the project.

White has scheduled a public meeting for 3 p.m. Aug. 12 to receive comments regarding the courthouse project. The scheduled four-hour meeting will be held at the Rolland W. Lewis Community Building.