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Taxpayers weigh in on courthouse renovation plans
Updated on: 07.26.13

The 60 or so folks who attended a public meeting on the proposed courthouse expansion and remodel project heard about needs, the cost to taxpayers and alternatives to spending more than $6 million.

During the nearly three-hour gathering at the high school auditorium on July 25, Brown Circuit Court Judge Judith Stewart and Brown County Clerk Beth Mulry talked about the challenges of conducting modern business in a historic building, while Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver detailed the obstacles he faces operating out of a modular building.

No one who spoke at the meeting, hosted by the League of Women Voters, disagreed that the courthouse needs work. But some did question the level of thought and consideration that led county officials to choose architect Burt Perdue’s concept of a 25,000-square-foot addition.

The needs

Many areas of the courthouse are not in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Stewart said.

The jury room is too small and lacks a restroom, she said. Having no safe, secure entrance is disrespectful to adult and juvenile inmates brought into the courtroom in shackles and jail attire, she added.

In addition to improving courthouse security, the judge also needs conference rooms for attorneys to discuss cases, and a change in court layout. To access the court office while court is in session, one must walk through the courtroom.

Mulry said she needs more space for conducting elections and storing records, many of which are in the Law Enforcement Center basement. At least once a day, members of her staff travel across town to the LEC. Storing paper records in a basement is not a good situation because of the risk of flooding, she said.

Other problems she sees in the clerk's office are a lack of privacy for people seeking protective orders; an overloaded electrical system; and windows that, in wintertime, allow her to keep her food partially frozen by sitting it on the sill.

“I do think there is a great need,” she said, about making changes to the 1874 courthouse.

Oliver said his office building, across a parking lot from the courthouse, suffices now, but he plans to hire an additional deputy prosecutor within the next 10 years to help handle the 500 or so criminal cases filed each year. He said he will need more office space and a bigger conference room.

Tax estimates

A panel of current and former public officials tried to answer questions raised by the audience and moderator Julie Winn. The panel included former County Commissioner Bill Austin, Nashville Town Council President Bob Kirlin, Indiana Landmarks Community Preservation Specialist Laura Renwick, County Council President David Critser and County Commissioner Joe Wray.

Sheriff Rick Followell liked the idea of having a courtroom near the LEC. It would make for cheaper, more secure prisoner transport, he said.

To that suggestion, raised several months ago, Critser said the county could not afford such an undertaking. He said the county's debt ceiling is $6 million. At that level, he said, the county can handle an expansion and remodeling project while limiting the burden on property taxpayers.

Taxpayers are currently paying off a number of loans for county projects.

Critser said the county owes $6.7 million on the bond used to build the LEC. With annual payments of $600,000, that debt will be paid off in 2029.

The county will start paying off a $2 million road loan in 2014. Two payments of more than $1 million will clear that debt in 2015, which is when taxpayers would start paying off the courthouse loan.

Critser said interest on the new loan will accrue in 2014 and 2015, but the setup of waiting to pay off that debt avoids a large jump in property taxes. When the road loan rolls off, he said, it would be replaced by the courthouse loan. To pay off the courthouse loan would require 12 annual payments paid for by increasing property taxes.

On the courthouse loan, Critser said the owner of a $100,000 property would pay an additional $22 a year, while taxes on a $200,000 property would see $64 jump and the bill on a $300,000 property would increase by $106 a year.

Once the loan is paid off, those charges wouldn't necessarily go away, Critser pointed out. Creating new building space also adds the indefinite expense of upkeep, he said, estimating it may cost the same as the payments on the loan, every year.

Why this plan?

Winn wanted to know how the commissioners chose this proposal as the solution for the courthouse.

Wray said previous county commissioners awarded projects to a rotating pool of four local architects. Perdue secured the courthouse project through an agreement for an energy study, which morphed into preparing a conceptual design for courthouse improvements. Perdue spent a year working on the design, which cost the county more than $40,000.

One audience member suggested leaving the former jail property to the north of the courthouse as green space, to give a view to the historical society's Pioneer Village.

Ruth Reichmann called for more planning to ensure that this proposal is the best solution. She did not understand the commissioners’ method of choosing an architect without a bid process, especially when Miller Architects had already done a courthouse expansion study at no cost.

“Competition is the American way,” she said.

Austin called for a space study of all county buildings as part of a long-term, strategic plan.

He alleged that a failure to communicate to the public and a mistrust of county officials led to the remonstrance against this project.

He said the remonstrance is necessary to stop the project and explore all options. He added that people should not be scared into supporting this proposal.

Multiple people complained of cramped parking in Nashville. They feared the problem would only get worse with an expansion.

Perdue said many of the folks who stood up to speak could have avoided doing so if they had read his plan, which shows more parking being added by demolishing the prosecutor’s office.

Brown County resident Al Cox suggested using the more than $1 million of taxpayer funds that will be allocated to support the 4-H Fair to the courthouse project instead.

Critser said Perdue’s design would likely be scaled back to fit the county’s budget.

He predicted the commissioners would agree to an architect other than Perdue if that firm agreed to pay for any cost overages above what they bid.

Attorney Bill Lloyd suggested that the county purchase the Brown County Inn for $2.9 million and turn it into a public office center.

Critser said he did not like the idea because it would remove $28,000 from the tax rolls and nearly 100 guest rooms from the county, just before the Little Nashville Opry is expected to reopen.

One audience member suggested moving the probation department to the LEC basement to open up more space at the courthouse. Followell said the LEC doesn't have the space to add probation.

Michael Jeffries questioned the size of the expansion. Wray said the design accounts for current and future needs.

Kirlin hopes the commissioners accept the town’s offer to fund a new public restroom in the courthouse that would be open on weekends.

Renwick said she hoped that the county decided to leave the courthouse in downtown Nashville, as the centerpiece of the community.

Commissioners John Kennard and Dave Anderson did not attend the meeting.

Remonstrance

People in favor of and against the courthouse renovation project can begin picking up petitions at the clerk’s office, on the first floor of the courthouse, Thursday, Aug. 8.

People wishing to sign a petition must either become a petition carrier and gather signatures, or find someone who has already picked up a packet.

All petitions must be notarized and returned to the clerk’s office by 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9.

The side with the most signatures after this round of petitioning wins. If those in favor of the loan secure more signatures, the commissioners can proceed with the project. If those against the loan gather more signatures, the commissioners would have to wait one year before making another attempt at borrowing funds.

Whether or not the commissioners can proceed with the project will be decided sometime before Oct. 14, the deadline for the clerk to certify signatures of property owners and/or registered voters.

 -- Kevin Lilly, Brown County Democrat

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    Jeff Foster at Hobnob restaurant
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  • October 9
    Gospel jam session
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    Go Club at the library Thursdays
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    Bingo
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