When voters in Rock Island County go to the polls on April 9, among the issues they will vote on is expanding the power of the county public building commission. In reality, they will be voting on whether they want to pay for new county buildings.
When county Board Chairman Phil Banaszek took office late last year, he knew this issue was an urgent one. Chief Judge Jeffery O'Connor was threatening to sue the county for force action, "and I knew it would be one of the first things to address.
"We've patched the tire many times, and it just gets worse with age," he said.
He appointed an ad hoc committee of experts to look at the county's offices, finances and options. The county board then placed the referendum on the ballot.
Outlining the reasons behind and costs associated with the referendum to our paper's editorial board were Mr. Banaszek; Circuit Judge Mark VandeWiele; Hunt Harris, ad hoc committee member; and, Jeff Jacobs, Moline lawyer representing Progress Rock Island County, a PAC set up to finance support of the referendum.
The wording on the ballot is specified by state law, they said. The county did not specify construction of a courthouse on the advice of bond counsel because in most places, the "courthouse" includes all county offices. In Rock Island County, it only includes the courts, states attorney and recorder of deeds offices. It was believed that omitting the word would eliminate future confusion, they said.
All agreed that even if voters fail to approve new powers for the building commission, something must be done to the building that houses the courts. Its heating and air conditioning do not function well, the court rooms are too small and unsafe, electrical circuits are overloaded and the roof frequently leaks.
Judge VandeWeiele warned of huge liability issues, displaying a huge chunk of stone that recently fell off the building. He said heat in the winter cannot be controlled and ranges from 50 degrees to 106.
Understanding why Judge O'Connor would file suit against the county is easier to understand than the referendum wording. Under state law, the county board must provide a courthouse meeting minimum standards set by the state Supreme Court. The chief judge is charged both by the state constitution and an Illinois Supreme Court directive with enforcing the minimum courtroom standards, they explained.
So what are the options available to the county's taxpayers? Here is how they were laid out by county officials in our meeting. Cost totals are based on estimates provided by Estes Construction of Davenport but don't necessarily reflect the final costs.
IF NEW POWER FOR THE COMMISSION IS APPROVED … a needs assessment will be done while the ad hoc committee is completing its work. The approval will allow the county to refinance some outstanding bonds for the jail and save money on building maintenance. There are two options the county could follow.
Option One: Each taxpayer, with a property valued at $100,000, is currently paying $32 a year to operate the courthouse and justice center. An estimated $20 million in bonds for the new court building would be sold at 3.5 percent interest over 20 years. Building the new court would increase what each taxpayer pays for the two facilities to $40 per year, or a property tax increase of $8 per year.
Option Two: The county could also choose to build a new facility to house all of the county offices which are currently spread among several buildings in Rock Island. This would cost an estimated $47 to $50 million. Those same taxpayers, with the same valued property, who are currently paying $32 per year for the courthouse and justice center would end up paying $70 per year, or an increase of $38 per year over the current level.
IF THE NEW POWERS ARE REJECTED … the ad hoc committee will continue its work. It is likely that Judge O'Connor and his group would file suit to force the county to build a new courthouse. Because the current courthouse is unsafe and does not meet minimum standards set by the Illinois Supreme Court, the result would likely be a court order requiring the county to build a new courthouse.
The court-ordered structure would likely cost $20-$25 million but because of state law would have to be financed over 10 years through conventional financing. The new building to house the courts built through this process would cost the taxpayer with property valued at $100,000 an additional $30 per year, or a total of $62.
There would not be a second option under the court-imposed avenue.
If voters reject new powers for the commission, it could not be put up for a vote again until March 2014, Mr. Harris said. In the meantime, interest rates, which are at historic lows, could go up, building costs will certainly go up and there is the potential of a tort liability case against the county which could be expensive.
"I am selfishly going to vote for the public building commission because it's the best way to handle this for the taxpayer," Mr. Harris said.
"The old-timers told us that if we did this, we were going to tick off the votes and get thrown out of office, but it needs to be done," said Mr. Banaszek, the board chairman. "It's what is best and cheapest for the taxpayers."