Paving the way for a new county courthouse


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Originally Posted Online: March 30, 2013, 6:42 pm
Last Updated: March 31, 2013, 7:01 pm
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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

The April 9 referendum on the scope of the Rock Island County Public Building Commission's authority could pave the way for the construction of a new county courthouse.

The referendum will ask voters if they support expanding the powers of the public building commission, which would allow it to finance construction of a new courthouse or any other county building.

At present, the PBC is limited to jail projects.

The PBC is an independent body that can issue bonds to fund construction, but it can only do so if given direction by the county board. Members of the PBC are appointed by the county board chairman.

The courthouse is more than a century old and does not meet guidelines for courtrooms set by the Illinois Supreme Court and is in a generally dilapidated state, according to judges and county officials.

They say the building also lacks adequate space for the employees and storage of files.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit judges led by Chief Judge Jeffrey O'Connor are arguing in favor of building a new courthouse and have warned they could sue the county to build one.

"All they are doing is adhering to the letter of the law and following their responsibilities," said Rock Island County Board Chairman Phil Banaszek.

Opponents of the referendum argue that the referendum question is too vague.

"The referendum is far too open ended, without any specific purpose," said an open letter urging a "no" vote from a group that includes local Republicans Bill Bloom, Bill Long and Louie Alongi.

The group argues that the county board should approach the public with a specific proposal and a price tag, instead of asking for broad authority to build new county properties.

However, others say that even if the county should have developed a firm plan in the past, the time for action on the courthouse question is now, and the PBC is the best vehicle to complete the project.

If the PBC's authority is expanded, it would be allowed to borrow up to 5 percent of the equalized assessed valuations of properties in Rock Island County, which would give it about $120 million in borrowing power.

"It's not an open checkbook," said Rock Island County Board member Bob Westpfahl, R-Milan. "There's a lot of good conservative people on that board that will watch how every dime is spent."

Mr. Westpfahl said conditions for workers in the courthouse are "terrible" and was surprised unions have not been more active in pushing for a new building.

A special ad hoc committee has been established by Mr. Banaszek to look at options for where and how a new courthouse could be built, and he expects the committee to make a recommendation to the county board before the end of the year.

Rock Island County Board member Don Johnston, D-Moline, agreed with critics of the referendum who say the question is too broad. But he still supports a "yes" vote to create a way to finance a solution to the courthouse conundrum.

"I think we'd have been better off with a narrower wording for the referendum," he said. "People don't trust the board, and I can't say I blame them."

Mr. Banaszek, however, said a campaign of public awareness in recent weeks has begun to win public support for a "yes" vote in the referendum.

The PBC offers the county the cheapest option to build a new courthouse, he said, by allowing the county to service debt over a long period, and it's important that the county moves soon to avail of historically low interest rates.

The PBC would own the site of a new courthouse if one is built. The county board would then have to approve an annual lease agreement with the county paying the PBC enough to pay off its debt. Once the debt is cleared, the county would own the courthouse.

Although most of the focus as been on the courthouse, Mr. Banaszek said a PBC with broader powers also could be used to finance renovations to the county administration building.

The building is not in as poor shape as the courthouse, he said, but it would make sense to see if it could be improved or replaced at the same time as the courthouse.

















 



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