by John Logan Brent
About two months ago the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts made a formal offer to build a new 37,500 square foot, $12 million justice center in Henry County. This offer would be pending the state legislature funding it in the 2012 session. Fiscal Court will vote at the June meeting whether or not to sign a contract with the AOC and move forward with the project. This will be one of the biggest decisions that the court has had to make in recent years. There are very good reasons to both accept and reject the offer.
If Fiscal Court declines, the number one reason will be because of cost.
AOC currently rents space from the County for district and circuit court. Additionally they reimburse us 72 percent for any repairs we make to the courthouse. Over the last five years the average annual payment received from AOC has been $76,437. If we build a new judicial center all AOC payments for the existing courthouse will stop. One known additional cost of a new judicial center will be the hiring of three to five new security officers. The state will reimburse the Sheriff $8 an hour for these officers. The Sheriff will have to pay any additional salary over that reimbursement rate out of his budget and the Fiscal Court will be responsible for the social security and any benefit payments should the employees work full-time. The bottom line is a new Judicial Center will cost the taxpayers of this county $80,000 plus in revenue a year.
The Local recently reported on a budget plan put together by the Court Facilities Committee Chairman Nick Hawkins. According to this plan — which is based on projections, assumptions, redirecting debt payments, relocating offices and renting out the space — the county would save $1,600 by building the new facility. Though I commend Magistrate Hawkins for his efforts to make something he is passionate about financially feasible, the bottom line is still that no matter what kind of budget plan you put together the county will take in $76,437 less and spend $5,000–$20,000 more the day a new facility opens.
As your Judge-Executive, I am responsible for administering the daily operations of the county. I know as well as anyone the money that is coming in and going out. At this time I could not recommend moving forward with this project based on the cost, versus the benefit.
After eight successive years in the black it looks like the county general fund will finish this year in the red. With a down economy and expenses like fuel and insurance on the rise, I believe the county will need the $80,000 a year to pay its bills and pay for existing services. Included in our annual bills are utilities and maintenance for our existing Courthouse. Just three years ago we spent $31,000 to paint the Courthouse and got $22,300 back from AOC. Common sense would lead one to assume that future Fiscal Courts would be less likely to make major improvements to the Courthouse without the incentive of receiving the 72 percent reimbursement.
Secondly, if the Fiscal Court were to have a “free choice” to spend $80,000 a year on something, would they spend it on a new Judicial Center? Over the last eight years I have heard your general requests to improve roads, parks and emergency services. I have heard specific requests for water and sewer lines, more industry (a formal recruitment program), a new community center/swimming pool, a drive-in recycling center, a skate park, sidewalk repairs, programs for unwanted cats and neglected horses, canneries and meat processing for local farm products, and the list goes on and on. What I had not heard out in the community was one single request for a new judicial center prior to the AOC making the offer. You would think with more than 40 new judicial centers being built around the state in the last 10 years that if it were a priority the office phone would have rung before now, but it hasn’t.
Yes our courthouse is old, there are space and accessibility constraints, but I believe all of these issues can be dealt with and at a tremendous savings to both our state and county. As far as priorities go, if I have misjudged yours and you believe a new judicial center should be at the top of the county “to do” list, please let me know your thoughts before next Tuesday’s Fiscal Court meeting.