The Logan County Courthouse and upcoming referendum

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[February 12, 2020]  At the Logan County Board’s monthly Building and Grounds Committee meeting Tuesday, February 4, the focus of discussion was the Logan County Courthouse and referendum.

The referendum question on the March ballot proposes a 0.5 percent sales tax increase for the purpose of courthouse restoration. That is an added fifty cents for every one hundred dollars spent and would not increase sales tax on food and medicine. If passed, all revenue from the increase will be put towards repairing and restoring the county courthouse.

To address some of the questions people have about the referendum and need for repairs, the committee discussed ideas for getting more information to the public:

  • Board member Jim Wessbecher said a group from Mount Pulaski found it helpful to open their school for tours so that people could see what areas needed to be fixed. Many said they did not realize how bad the condition of the school was until they got in there and saw it. Wessbecher said he thought it might be a good idea to provide tours of the courthouse to let people see what needs to be fixed.

    Building and Grounds Committee Chairman Dave Blankenship said tours would be great. That way people could see problems such as the floors, boilers and windows. He said a question and answer period after the tour would help provide additional information. Blankenship would even donate his time to do that.

  • Having the video about the referendum playing in the rotunda during the tours was another idea Blankenship had.

    By offering tours to people and pointing out problem areas, board member David Hepler said that could show some credibility [for the referendum] so the public could see what people must work with.

  • Hepler and Blankenship said another way to educate the public about the upcoming referendum was to make presentations for the Veteran’s Assistance Commission and the Logan County Historical and Genealogical Society meetings. Both groups indicated their support. Other ideas were speaking to areas clubs and groups.

  • Wessbecher said he would share information with the local economic development group. He said someone had suggested a town hall meeting at the Rec Center, and Blankenship showed support for that idea.

  • Blankenship asked board members to consider doing presentations for other local units of governments including townships, city councils and library boards. He will check with the State’s Attorney Brad Hauge to see if they can ask for a resolution of support from these groups.

  • Board member Cameron Halpin said he plans to show the courthouse referendum video to the Lincoln City Council at one of their meetings. The video will also be part of the pre-show screenings at the Lincoln theater.

    Recording of the second video is almost done. Halpin said in this video Restoration Specialist Bill Walter talks more about specific issues with the windows, air conditioning, flooring and dome.

    The videographer got some footage of the widespread problems around the courthouse. Halpin said he got footage in the dome, in the basement and in the State’s Attorney’s office with the electrical panel. They even got up on the roof and have footage of the standing water.

    There is also footage of Logan County Circuit Clerk Mary Kelley in the new video. Kelley has worked in the courthouse for 42 years and gave a testimonial. Halpin said she did an excellent job of explaining the referendum.

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  • Some board members were available to answer questions and show the courthouse referendum video at the Meet the Candidates event at the Oasis Saturday, February 8.

When asked about the plan if the referendum does not go through, Blankenship said it would be restrictive in nature. It would most likely be burdensome to the taxpayer. To the best of his knowledge, raising property taxes is not an option because Logan County is a (PTEL) Property Tax Extension Limit county. Blankenship said they would have to look for alternative financing.

If they were just able to make partial repairs, Blankenship said it would end up costing more in the long run because of inflation of labor and materials.

Additionally, Blankenship said during the restoration or repair process, in most if not all cases, employees could be relocated within the courthouse. However, if restoration is not done and a catastrophic problem were to occur, there would be no choice but to relocate employees outside the courthouse. The county would have to lease facilities, which Blankenship said would greatly increase costs.

Hepler said it could mean massive cuts across the board budget since they need a revenue source to back up the board budget. He said they had to do cuts years ago when Dale Voyles was Chairman and it was very unpopular. The year they did cuts, the tax levy allocation for the County’s Highway Department was one dollar.

Halpin felt it would be difficult to make enough cuts to cover everything.

The courthouse is the center of the historic district. Logan County Board Administrative Assistant Brenda Clark said if the courthouse goes away, the historic district could go away. Then all the buildings around the square would be ineligible for grants and funding through the federal government, a fact many people may not be aware of.

Whether your approach to economic development is regional or local, Blankenship said, the courthouse is crucial to both strategies. He said the courthouse is "a strong tower and the heart and soul of the county."

This October, there was additional damage to the dome, and Clark said that has caused the cost of repairs for the dome to go up 10 percent. There is a need to keep taking care of the building or the problems will cascade, and the costs will go up.

Halpin said one of the biggest questions that keeps coming up is what will be done after the initial restoration to ensure our grandkids will not have to vote on another tax.

Since the tax is a Public Facilities Tax, Blankenship said any residual funds will be used for courthouse maintenance for years to come. Part of the service Bill Walter plans to offer is setting up a professional preventative maintenance program. That way, the county board and its staff know what to do and when to do it.

Halpin said at some point the money is going to run out with the twenty- year sunset clause. He said it is important to make sure we have budgeted for preventative maintenance rather than budgeting for “bandaids.”

Blankenship has been asked by many people how the courthouse got to this point. He said it is a combination of differing ideologies, varying financial priorities, the weather elements, and almost 105 years of public occupancy.

At a time like this, Blankenship said it is futile to point fingers at each other in blame. It is far better for us to work together toward a solution. To do otherwise would be squandering away an inheritance that has been left to us by past generations.

[Angela Reiners]

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