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BENTONVILLE -- Most Benton County justices of the peace prefer a cheaper, downtown alternative to a failed proposal to build a new courthouse in Bentonville.

The Finance Committee, composed of all 15 Quorum Court members, heard five courts proposals from County Judge Barry Moehring on Tuesday. The proposals include again asking voters to approve money for a new courthouse, moving the project to near the county jail, long-term bonds paid off with no new revenue, a lease-to-own agreement for a new building and a scaled-down downtown project.

In a straw poll, 10 justices of peace said the downtown alternative was their preferred option. Two Quorum Court members preferred putting the issue back on the ballot and two supported a private option plan. One justice of the peace was absent.

"We wanted to restoke the discussion on the range of possibilities," Moehring said Wednesday. "This has to be a collaborative decision. We had that before, and we need that again."

The Quorum Court is wrestling with how to proceed after residents voted down a proposed one-eighth of a percentage point sales tax increase March 12 to pay for an 87,000-square-foot, $30 million courthouse on Northeast Second Street. The tax would have been collected for 54 months, according to county documents.

The downtown alternative favored by most justices would use the three courtrooms in the historic Benton County Courthouse. The old jail area behind the courthouse would be demolished and replaced by a building with four courtrooms. The plan would cost less than $15 million.

The alternative plan needs to be looked at as one phase of a bigger courts project, Moehring said. It's not a 50-year solution like a new courts facility would have been, but it would be a solution for at least 10 to 15 years, Moehring said. The county also will need to deal with jail expansion in the coming years, he said.

"I support a solution that solves the courts problem," Moehring said. "This gets a solution in play. What was presented Tuesday night was a proof of concept. It's a solution that's viable."

Justice of the Peace Michelle Chiocco said Wednesday she appreciated seeing the different proposals but she is behind the alternative downtown plan because it is more cost effective and a better use of taxpayer money.

Chiocco also said she was not opposed to having criminal courts at a location near the jail but isn't in favor of another sales tax election or the lease plan.

Justice of the Peace Susan Anglin said she supports the scaled-back downtown option but doesn't like that it is a short-term solution.

Anglin also noted the straw poll doesn't mean anything at this point.

"We could all change our minds once we get some new information," she said. "It gave us a lot of food for thought."

In the alternative plan, the new building would have a detention area and Circuit Clerk's Office on the first floor and two 1,700-square-foot courtrooms each on two other floors. The proposal would add more than 38,000 square feet for courts, Moehring said.

The current courthouse is 28,080 square feet, said Bryan Beeson, Benton County facilities manager. Circuit Judge Robin Green's current courtroom is 1,813 square feet, Circuit Judge Xollie Duncan's court is 1,035 square feet and Circuit Judge John Scott's courtroom is 964 square feet.

The prosecutor's office would remain on the first floor of the historic courthouse, but some of the staff would be moved to the second floor and use the space made available when the circuit clerk moves to the new building.

Circuit Judges Scott, Green and Duncan would remain in their courtrooms, while Circuit Judges Doug Schrantz and Brad Karren, along with a new judge who will take office in 2021, would have courtrooms in the new building.

Two buildings currently used for court would be sold, and the money would be used to construct the new building, according to the proposal.

The sale would net around $2 million, and the county could use $6 million in reserve funds. The Walton Family Foundation committed to donating $2 million if the courthouse is built downtown, Moehring said. The remaining money could be financed in short-term debt, he told the Finance Committee.

The county has a little more than $16 million in reserve funds, comptroller Brenda Guenther said.

A representative at the Walton Family Foundation confirmed the $2 million and the land donation are still in play as long as a downtown option is being considered.

Appraisals on the annex and the Main Street building were done in 2017, Moehring told justices of the peace in April. The 10,500-square-foot annex was built in 1935. The 4,900-square-foot building on Main Street was built in 1968.

Karren holds court in the annex, a former U.S. Post Office. The building appraised for $1.1 million and an additional $511,000 for the excess land, Moehring wrote.

The building has many maintenance issues including needing a new roof, which likely will be requested in the 2020 budget, Moehring wrote. The building is also considered a part of Bentonville's and Benton County's history, Moehring said. He wrote he would be reluctant to sell the property unless there was a deed restriction requiring owners to maintain or improve the structure within an appropriate intended use. The deed restriction stipulation still stands, Moehring said Wednesday.

Schrantz holds court in the Main Street building. It appraised for $920,000 and an additional $371,000 for the excess land, much of which is parking behind the building, Moehring wrote. The parking lot is part of the downtown parking district, Moehring said previously.

The fundamental use of the building has changed from office space to a courts facility, and a new appraisal is near completion, Moehring said.

The county would put a parking lot with up to 70 spaces on Northeast Second Street where the building that was voted down in March would have been built, Moehring said.

A new parking deck isn't part of the alternative courts plan, Moehring said. Off-Street Parking District No. 3 and Bentonville Revitalization Inc. planned to build a parking deck if the special sales tax election had passed in March, according to a letter from the two groups to Moehring.

Moehring said the parking deck would be considered under three of the five options -- the same one-eighth of a percent sales tax increase plan that failed in March, a long-term bonding plan and the lease-to-purchase option.

Metro on 06/17/2019

Print Headline: Cheaper option preferred after failed courts plan

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