When budget discussions for 2017 ended last month, no new money was set aside to repair or update the historic Brown County Courthouse.
A budget line that had held $50,000 in 2016 for courthouse repairs was cut to zero.
Budgeting for security improvements — one of Judge Judith Stewart’s primary concerns — went from $50,000 to $30,000. None of that money was spent in 2016.
In 2016, the county also had about $50,000 budgeted to come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act at all county properties, including the courthouse.
About $24,000 had been spent as of Aug. 23 but not on the courthouse. It was spent on issues such as such as sidewalks around county buildings, county commissioner Diana Biddle said.
In 2017, the county will have about $20,000 to spend on ADA compliance at all county properties. The estimate a few years ago for the courthouse alone was $150,000, but Biddle believes the actual cost will be higher.
While money from all of those budget lines could go toward courthouse work, none of them would be enough to do everything needed, Biddle said.
Concerns include security and space. Ideas have included adding onto the historic courthouse, building a new courthouse or finding office space somewhere else.
The cost of any of that work — as well as the courthouse being on the National Register of Historic Places — add to the difficulty of finding a solution.
Former county commissioner Darrell Kent was under the impression the county’s cumulative capital development fund would eventually pay for work needed at the courthouse. Before he left office in 2013, he voted for an increase to the fund for that reason, he said.However, little is spent now from that fund on the courthouse.
The county pays for a variety of things out of the cumulative capital development fund, including salaries and equipment expenses for information technology.
About $60,000 in salaries is budgeted to that fund for 2017.
Prior to 2014, no salaries were paid from the fund. But during a budget crunch, the county council moved expenses from the county general fund to the cumulative capital fund.
A portion of the fund is budgeted for buildings. It has covered costs such as replacing courthouse windows that were knocked out by a tree earlier this year, Biddle said.
Under Indiana law, the county is permitted to use that fund for any expense that can be paid for with property taxes.
Council member David Critser, who has served on the council for almost two decades, said that changed as the state realized counties needed that money for normal operating expenses.
Brown County Auditor Beth Mulry said she sees justification for categorizing technology as infrastructure.
But should the county pay regular, predictable expenses out of the cumulative capital fund, or should it be saved for larger, one-time expenses?
“I can definitely see the equipment, and maintaining that out of it,” Mulry said. “But you do raise a good question of whether or not we should try to get our general operating expenses out of it.”
Critser said he thinks it would be good to let funds begin to accumulate. Down the road, that money could be used for some initial expenses of a courthouse renovation or replacement, like architectural fees.
He said he doubts enough could be accumulated in the fund — which takes in an average of about $400,000 a year — to cover the entire cost of a courthouse renovation or replacement.
When constructing a new courthouse elsewhere was studied in 2013, contractors estimated it costing between $6 million and $7 million.
A full renovation of the existing courthouse along with an addition that would more than triple the square footage was estimated to cost around $6 million at that time.
Safety concerns in the building include additional security to regularly monitor entry and having a secure entrance for prisoners. Those issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later, Critser said.
In the future
Next year, $779,254 is listed to be spent out of the cumulative capital development fund — almost double the average revenue it takes in.Biddle hopes to have money left in the fund, which held about $837,000 on Aug. 23. About $250,000 in property tax revenue had been collected for the fund by that date, and about $368,000 had been spent.
Critser and Biddle agreed that some kind of increase in taxes, such as through a loan, would be necessary in order to fully address the problems at the courthouse.
However, neither of them could say when they felt local taxpayers would be willing to consider that option, and no forum has been planned to gather input.
The plan in 2013 to spend up to $6.5 million on a courthouse renovation and addition was defeated by a taxpayer remonstrance. It would have been paid back over 15 years with a tax increase estimated at $22 per year for a $100,000 property, $64 for a $200,000 property or $106 for a $300,000 property.