Tax increase for courthouse sent to voters

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Curry County Commissioners voted Monday to let voters decide if taxes will be raised to pay for a new courthouse and renovations to the existing historic courthouse on Main Street.

CNJ staff

Voters will be asked to decide in November if Curry County will raise taxes to get a new courthouse.

During a special meeting Monday morning, commissioners voted 4-1 to let voters decide the question of funding a new courthouse.

Commissioner Caleb Chandler voted against the resolution.

Passed unanimously was a second resolution, which instructs the county clerk to place the questions on the ballot.

Voters in November will be asked to:

• Issue up to $16.5 million from property tax increases to pay for construction and improvements to the courthouse.

• Approve a .25 percent gross receipts tax increase for use on capital improvement projects, which officials have said will be used for improvements to the existing jail and a new two-story jail. The GRT increase is also projected to raise about $16.5 million.

“I’ve searched and searched and searched and did a little praying, then searched again,” Chairman Bobby Sandoval said following the vote. “I think it’s a great thing we’ve done. It might fail, I don’t know, but at least we’re giving it to the people to make the decision.”

Following the meeting, Chandler said though he objected to a property tax increase to pay for the courthouse, “I had no objection to the vote being taken at the November election.”

During its regular meeting Aug. 3, commissioners voted in favor of an ordinance to let voters decide if taxes will be raised to build a new, two-story jail. But at the behest of Chandler, they tabled the two resolutions related to the courthouse and asked architects to present more options.

Namely, Chandler said he wanted to know the feasibility of using the newly acquired post office building on Gidding Street for court expansion.

Following the Monday meeting, Chandler wrote in an e-mail he wanted, “the architect to bring us a bare bones proposal that would correct deficiencies at the courthouse with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), fire and other code issues and security issues.

“(The architect’s) standards for correcting security issues and mine are very different. I did not think the proposal was reasonable for the economic times that we are experiencing.”

Architects have said their plan for a new courts building situated next to the existing courthouse and in proximity to the jail, is the most practical and economic way to resolve code issues with the older building, security concerns with the courts and space shortages for growing court and county offices.

“We stand by our original (recommendations),” architect Don May told commissioners. “This really is the minimum program that will support (the county’s) needs.”

Architect Dave Williams said at a price tag of around $6.5 million, the post office building could be renovated and an addition could be built on the more than one-acre lot that is undeveloped, creating an additional 22,400 square feet of space. But that would not address code issues in the historic courthouse and would not fit the plan for a judicial complex.

“I don’t think this is the most prudent use of the money,” Williams said.

District Judge Teddy Hartley encouraged commissioners to support the plan.

“The (existing) courthouse reflects an attitude of bailing wire and duct tape. … I believe that if we don’t do it all at once we’re wasting money,” he said.

“Let’s don’t do a half measure, let’s do it and do it right. … It’s a lot of money and the (financial challenges) seem great but the need is greater. Let the voters decide.”

Chandler said he voted on behalf of his constituents, many of whom he said have told him, “they would support correcting security and code issues at the courthouse, but nothing more at this time.”

Chandler said voters have told him they, “do not feel they should be subjected to a situation where people who do not own property, and therefore will not be paying the property tax, are able to impose a tax on property owners. Only property owners pay property tax.”

The new court would have a tunnel to transport inmates from jail to court with a holding area and secure elevators and corridors to keep inmates and the public separate.

The completed cost of the first phase of the project — which would pay for a new jail and courthouse — is $33 million, officials have said.

Additional phases, which would involve renovation and construction of more than a dozen buildings — primarily detention facilities — could run the costs to $90 million, architects have said.