Stop kicking the can on Rock Island County Courthouse

Originally Posted Online: March 30, 2013, 11:00 pm
Last Updated: March 30, 2013, 11:34 pm
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By Roger Ruthhart

Voters in Rock Island County are faced with a real conundrum with this referendum to expand the authority of the Public Building Commission.

Most people would agree that something needs to be done about the county courthouse which is old, outdated, too small and has fallen into disrepair. It is not up to some codes and health and liability risks are high.

Some believe we should take the cheapest way out and rent space.
Others support building only a new courthouse. Some support a new administration building and courthouse, and still others think the existing buildings can be renovated.

But those questions aren't on the ballot. We are being asked to approve expanding the authority of the PBC beyond its current limits of providing a jail and justice center.

If the referendum is approved, the authority will be expanded with the county board to decide what facilities are needed, where they should be built and at what cost.

A story in today's paper details the financials of various options in detail -- perhaps $20 million for a new courthouse or up to $50 million to build a new county complex and bring all county offices -- most located in older buildings -- into one site.

The direction the county goes will be based on recommendations from an ad hoc committee of experts studying the issue and appointed by the county board chairman.

If the referendum is defeated, the issue is taken out of the hands of the voters and their elected officials and will be decided by the courts. Chief Judge Jeffery O'Connor has said if the county doesn't do something (like pass the referendum), he will file suit. He has the law on his side.

Besides that, he will likely win because:

-- Our courthouse facilities do not meet the minimum requirements set forth by the Illinois Supreme Court;
-- A judge will hear the case filed by another judge on behalf of judges and the judicial system in this circuit.

If that happens, the judge hearing the case will likely order construction of new court facilities, but by statute they will be financed over 10 years, not the 20 the county is hoping to take to pay off the PBC bonds.
Some of you, I know, favor remodeling the historic structures.

But judges argue it is not conducive to modern-day court, cannot be made safe and secure, and internal walls are load-bearing and cannot be removed -- some are almost four feet thick. There is simply not enough square footage available to meet even basic needs.

Others would like to wait until the special ad hoc committee has completed its study and a firm plan is in place and put that to referendum. (A member of that committee, Hunt Harris, weighs in on the referendum elsewhere in Viewpoints today.)

The next time a referendum could be on the ballot would be March 2014. By then the county would have had to endure another year of liability and maintenance. Interest rates now at a historical low would be higher, as would building costs. It would cost each of us more to finance and build the same structure.

Like you, I have been trying to walk myself through the process.
According to figures provided by the county, building a $20 million courthouse, coupled with refinancing outstanding jail bonds and saving on courthouse maintenance would end up costing a taxpayer with a home worth $100,000 an additional $8 per year. If a court orders construction, the county loses the bond refinancing ability and will have to pay off the new structure over a shorter period of time. It will cost the property taxpayer with that $100,000 house $30 more per year.

The more expensive $50 million courthouse and county administration building option would cost that same property owner $38 more per year than they are paying today.

One way or another, we are going to have to build a new courthouse and I'd rather do it on the county's terms, based on the advice of the special committee, than at the order of a judge. Like state government, the county has kicked this can down the road long enough. It's time to deal with the problem.

The difference to my pocketbook of $8 more or $38 more per year in taxes is not a deal breaker. It doesn't make sense to deal with the courthouse issue today and the county offices a few years down the road when everything will cost more.

All of the facilities should remain in downtown Rock Island -- preferably close or connected to the jail and justice center. No one has convinced me that any of the historic structures couldn't also be rehabbed and re-purposed for non-governmental use.

Am I ready to vote yes and give the county a blank check? It has taken a while, but yes, I am. Over the years, the Rock Island County Board has been frugal almost to a fault.

It built the new jail to minimum standards and the costs of this project outlined in presentations around the county seem reasonable. Any action will require a 75 percent super majority vote of the county board, minimizing the opportunity for a small group to control the greater chamber.

When it comes to saving tax dollars, modernizing our facilities and avoiding a potential calamity, the sooner we move forward the better.

Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at


Local events heading

  Today is Tuesday, Sept. 16, the 259th day of 2014. There are 106 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: A fine lumber mill is on the course of erection at Andalusia. A flouring mill at that location is doing a fine business.
1889 — 125 years ago: J.B. Lidders, past captain of Beardsley Camp, Sons of Veterans, returned from Paterson, N.Y., where he attended the National Sons of Veterans encampments.
1914 — 100 years ago: President Wilson announced that he had received from the imperial chancellor of Germany a noncommittal reply to his inquiry into a report that the emperor was willing to discuss terms of peace.
1939 — 75 years ago: Delegates at the Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church in Springfield voted to raise the minimum pay of ministers so that every pastor would get at least $1,000 annually.
1964 — 50 years ago: An audience of more than 2,600 persons jammed into the Davenport RKO Orpheum theater with a shoe horn feasted on a Miller-Diller evening that was a killer night. Phyllis Diller sent the audience with her offbeat humor. And send them she did! It was Miss Diller's third appearance in the Quad-Cities area.
1989 — 25 years ago: A few years ago, a vacant lot on 7th Avenue and 14th Street in Rock Island was a community nuisance. Weeds grew as high 18 inches. Today, the lot has a new face, thanks to Michael and Sheila Rind and other neighbors who helped them turn it into a park three weeks ago.

(More History)