Tax increase would pay for county construction

Tuesday, August 31, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 16, 2008

Boone County property owners’ tax bills will rise next year if voters approve a $15 million bond issue. The bond would pay for the addition of two floors to the county courthouse, construction of a new two-story office building and extensive work at the county government center.

The proposed expansion plan, which was discussed Friday at a meeting of elected county officials and department heads, would add office space for circuit court and county government offices. Renovating the first two floors of the county government center to expand existing office space would cost about $800,000, while finishing the third floor would cost an additional $1.3 million.

County officials also plan to add two stories to the Boone County Courthouse annex at a cost of $9.1 million and would like to raze the Johnson Building at 601 E. Walnut St. and replace it with a $3.2 million, two-story office building.

The $15 million price tag will be paid off over 15 years by boosting the county property tax levy by 9 cents per $100 in assessed valuation. For example, the tax bill on $100,000 worth of residential property would rise by $17.10.

Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said most of the expansion would accommodate the Boone County Circuit Court, which has seen its caseload grow in recent years because of an increase in the county’s population. She said that the prosecuting attorney would likely move into the annex addition and that the public defender and the juvenile division would move into the new building. This would allow crowded areas, such as the circuit clerk’s office, to expand into the existing space.

“We just don’t have any more room here,” Circuit Clerk Cheryl Whitmarsh said. “You can walk around the courthouse and see it. We try to be as creative as we can with the space we have, but we’ve come to the point that we’re out of ideas.”

Miller and Whitmarsh both said there has been a crucial space crunch in the courthouse for at least three years, and a little more than a year ago the County Commission floated plans to move the prosecuting attorney to the third floor of the government center.

That plan, including renovations of the present courthouse space, would have cost only $2.6 million, but Miller said it doesn’t consider that other county offices need to expand. In particular, she said, the information technology department, which has grown four-fold in the past 10 years, needs more room.

“There are some options that would address our immediate needs, but we need to be upfront with voters about our long-term capital needs,” Miller said. “It’s important to go to voters with a plan that looks at the big picture.”

Renovation of the government center’s third-floor was slated to begin this winter, but those plans are on hold so the County Commission can convene a focus group to discuss the county’s long-term capital and expansion needs.

“We have been studying the county’s space needs for the last year and a half, and we now have preliminary cost estimates and enough background data and factual information that we can go to voters,” said Presiding Commissioner Keith Schnarre, who probably will head the focus group for which the commission started soliciting members on Friday.

“We’ll ask the focus group if they think we’re looking at this problem correctly and what the possible solutions should be that we’re considering,” Schnarre said.

The commission, Schnarre added, hopes to form the focus group within two weeks. No time frame has been set for the group to complete its work.

The commission hopes to put the property-tax increase and bond issue on the April 2005 ballot.

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