Public addressed on proposed sales tax and use for the Logan Courthouse

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[March 05, 2020] 

On Sunday, March 1, a town hall style meeting was held in the Alumni Room at Lincoln College’s Myers Evans Student Center. Logan County is proposing a $.50 sales tax per $100 to help with the Logan County Courthouse restoration.

About 40 community members were there to learn more about the upcoming tax referendum. This meeting was one of several recent ones around the county.

Six Logan County Board members were there to answer people’s questions. Those in attendance included Building and Grounds Committee Chairman Dave Blankenship, Board Chairman Emily Davenport, Vice chairman Scott Schaffenacker, Cameron Halpin, Bob Sanders and Jim Wessbecher.

As the meeting began, a thirteen-minute video showing damages around the almost 115-year-old courthouse was shown.

Restoration Specialist Bill Walter explained the many issues needing repair. These include a leaky dome, roof internal drain issues, ceiling tiles falling in, energy loss from leaky windows, boiler leaks, tiles cracked due to excessive fluctuations in humidity, an old electrical system and corroded panel boxes.

To alleviate some of the moisture issues and maximize efficiency, Walter said he wants to put in a climate-controlled HVAC system and energy management system. Other plans would include upgrading the lighting, electronic security system upgrades to compliment the Sheriff’s security program as well as the electrical system. Walter does not want to push good money at a bad problem.

Logan County Circuit Clerk Mary Kelley has worked at the courthouse for 42 years. In the video, Kelley said she has seen many repairs over the years as the board has seen fit and had funds.

Recently, Blankenship said over the years there has been varying ideas and philosophies. He sees no benefit in blaming past boards who did the best they could with what they had to work with.

After the video, board members spoke briefly about what the tax would cover. Davenport said this tax would not apply to food or medicine.

It would include items such as gasoline, personal and household items. Travelers purchases would contribute.

Schaffenacker said it would include automobiles and appliances, which he would likely buy locally.  Schaffenacker said the referendum seems the most effective mitigation. It would provide long term corrective action for twenty plus years.

Community members had questions about the $8 million Walter has projected for needed repairs. Citizens wanted to know when the work would start and the timeline for completion.

Blankenship said the $8 M is a projected amount. If it comes in at $8 M and they receive additional funds, any extra revenue will go into a restricted fund account to provide preventative maintenance in the future.

Blankenship and Davenport are also pursuing State of Illinois Capital Bill (for infrastructure) money and have been talking to Senator Bill Brady and Representative Tim Butler. The Capital Bill funding is contingent on the referendum passing. If received, those funds would help offset the total restoration cost, which in turn ultimately helps build the revenue stream for future preventative maintenance.

Because the county would have to wait on grants, Blankenship said the restoration may not start until 2021. If all goes well, he said the project may be completed in 22 months, though with weather issues and other possible delays, it could take longer.

For right now the county is in mitigation mode and Blankenship said they are doing the best they can.

Two previous public safety tax referendums in the past few years that covered both the courthouse dome repair and safety complex failed. A few years ago, Blankenship said they were not seeing as rapid deterioration of the courthouse. His research showed a facilities tax referendum more accurately fits the task at hand.

Blankenship has encountered a few minimalists that have downplayed the overall condition of the building, but said the video clearly shows otherwise. For example, if the County Board opts to repair the dome only, the cost projection is just over $2 M dollars, which is only 25 percent of the total projected restoration cost, which would leave three-fourths of the disrepair not addressed or at best subjected to a sporadic piecemeal approach.

In his opinion project completion is paramount, adding such an approach ‘piecemeal work’ would greatly increase the cost to the taxpayers, which simply does not make good economic sense.

Blankenship said the county’s employees and constituents deserve better than that.

When asked about the Safety Complex concerns, Blankenship said that by going out for two distinctly different referendums the County Board has in a sense placed the prioritization of these matters in the hands of the people. In addition, this is perhaps exactly the reason we should not take on a partial repair or “piecemeal” approach versus a total restoration.

If the referendum does not pass, that will likely increase the financial pressures on the county. Financial pressure may have a detrimental effect on the county’s ability to address the latest standards and services in a timely manner.

With a full courthouse restoration, Blankenship said the county would most likely realize a generous savings in utility costs. It could also reap additional savings from consolidating other county departments into the courthouse should the board choose to proceed down that path.

The referendum has a 20-year sunset clause, which former board member Gene Rohlfs said means the tax would not last forever.

Sanders said the time could be reduced if everything is paid for.

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When asked why the tax is for 20 years when projections are sales tax producing $900,000 a year, Blankenship said that amount is only a projection and could fluctuate substantially.

Since the facilities tax is dedicated solely to the courthouse restoration and future maintenance Blankenship said by generating additional years of tax revenue over and above the cost of the bond principal and interest would allow the county to build up a reserve fund balance in the restricted account. This balance would offset preventative maintenance costs for years to come.

Another question was about the cost of a brand-new building and displacing workers.

Though that was one option initially explored, costs would be much higher. Blankenship said he had been told by others that had researched the matter that a new Law and Justice Complex could cost between $36 and $40 M, which is simply not within our reach at this time.

Wessbecher said the county would not be saving money by building a new courthouse.

The courthouse is the center of the historic district and Halpin said tearing it down would mean other businesses in the district would no longer be eligible for historic preservation grants.

With restoration, Davenport said empty spaces in the basement could be utilized and the county may be able to sell some other buildings used for office spaces.

City of Lincoln Treasurer Charles “Chuck” Conzo said Lincoln paid $3 M for the police station on Fifth Street, which used to be a school. This building was structurally sound and much smaller than the three-story courthouse, but the cost was almost half of the courthouse restoration costs.

Like the city of Lincoln Streets, the Lincoln Police Department is unrelated to county government. For some citizens, there is a misunderstanding of county versus city responsibilities.

Some had questions about a Plan B if the referendum does not pass, which was addressed both during and after the meeting.

If the referendum fails, Blankenship said Plan B would be to repair the dome and “dry in” the building. He said the problem with doing that is if there is a catastrophic system failure, the county would have no continuity of government with regard to the building. The board would likely have to take very costly and time-consuming measures to resolve the issue. Measures could include relocating staff and leasing other facilities.

By doing the work in a “piecemeal” way, the costs would go up exponentially. If that occurs, Blankenship said he doubts such an approach would continue until restoration is completed.

When asked about funding for a Plan B, Blankenship said the board would have to secure other means of revenue. He would personally support budget cuts as opposed to creating revenue through debt.

There have been questions about raising property taxes if the referendum does not pass, but Blankenship said that option is not likely because we are a Property Tax Extension Law Limit (PTEL) County with tax caps. Doing that would place the whole burden on property owners versus sharing the burden with patrons and tourists from outside the county that frequent our businesses.

Another question asked why the board did not start sharing information earlier. Blankenship said the process actually started months ago and information has been in the media for months. Efforts are ongoing, but Blankenship said the board must work within campaign statutes regarding the referendum.

Blankenship and others representatives have spoken twice to the Veterans Assistance Commission, held four meetings in Atlanta, one at the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society, and one at the Logan County Farm Bureau.

Schaffenacker said he has been going to organizations in Mount Pulaski and Elkhart and plans to present something in Latham.

He said it is the first time to have just the facility tax with the sunset clause and there were not meetings held for those attempts at referendum.

Board members have also spoken to various other organizations and units of government and been on the radio.

The results of this activity have yielded endorsements from the VAC, the Atlanta Township, the Genealogical Society, and the Farm Bureau, just to name a few.

Someone who worked as the chairman for the committee when the school tax referendum was voted a few years ago said it would be good to have a ‘Save the courthouse’ group to help with information.

As another way to share information with the public, you will find a link in Lincoln Daily News that goes to the videos hosted on the Logan County website.

Second Courthouse repair video - Link

Blankenship said there is some merit to pushing hard weeks before the vote as the referendum would be fresh in people’s minds.

When asked about concerns over the financial condition of the county, Blankenship said we can surely agree that the outcome of the vote may or may not be beneficial to the county’s financial condition.

However, not doing anything could be even more costly in the long run.

[Angela Reiners]

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