Proposed New Courthouse Options

Letter to the Editor – Brown County Democrat – Publication date June 13,  2018 under the title: Letter: Consider other ways for projects to proceed

The public presentation by DLZ on June 4, 2018 attended by the Commissioners and members of the County Council identified DLZ’s final recommendations for a new Justice Center. This Justice Center consists of a new courthouse and offices. DLZ also identified ideas and costs for re-purposing the old courthouse.

The solutions were presented without our elected representatives first communicating a compelling need that justifies why a new justice center is the best and only option for the county.   Before the DLZ presentation, H.J. Umbaugh and Associates presented the financing options for this project. DLZ identified a final step for the commissioners and council to “Generate Awareness and Build a Consensus – Public Outreach.”

In building a consensus, a needed step is to share the analysis that led to the recommendation that a new justice center is the best and only option for the county. This can be documented in a report and presentation that identifies the compelling need. In addition to needs, supporting detail should also include providing context to include identifying the history and results of past efforts, relevant facts, assumptions, and constraints. The presentation should also include identifying at least three possible options to include identifying the respective advantages and disadvantages of each option. An analysis of alternatives would provide some assurance to taxpayers that the commissioner and council performed their due diligence.

An article in the Brown County Democrat published Nov 17, 2017, ”Another annex? New study being done on courthouse future? “ provides an excellent history on this project.  Options identified in this article also included making “renovations to the current courthouse that would allow court to continue functioning on the second floor for the foreseeable future.”  The desire to remove the prosecutor’s office and the Deer Run park office is new.  Park office employees would move across the street to the lower level of the Veterans Hall that currently houses Community Corrections.

Unlike the government-owned Maple Leaf music venue where a remonstrance against the 12.5 million loan was not possible because the taxpayers were not directly obligated, it was stated that taxpayers do have the right to remonstrate for a bond exceeding $5 million. This project is estimated at over 10 million.  Note that the past proposal in 2012 for an annex to the courthouse led to a successful remonstrance.

The comments and questions provided by audience members included concerns about affordability, debt levels, maintenance and budgeting shortfalls, projections on a declining and aging population that can reduce the tax base, upward trends on income and property taxes and the impact of even more new debt on the 53.1% of the population that is in the low to moderate income level.

Brown County is identified as having the 3rd highest debt level per capita in Indiana and the fifth highest income tax rate. Since 2012, the property tax rate has increased 33% and the total tax levy increased by 44%.  Other counties in Indiana are managing to live within their means. Why can’t we?

The new debt from this project is another line item to be added to existing tax bills.  Further, the property tax system can result in annual adjustments in assessed value that can lead to higher property taxes. Higher property taxes are needed to support the higher spending that is approved by the county council and endorsed by the commissioners.

The history of community reaction to major projects was also discussed.  If you were to design a process on what “not to do” regarding introducing a significant project proposal, Brown County’s approach might be considered among the examples. Albeit entertaining, acceptable and useful to some, others view the ad-hoc approach as chaotic, costly, time-consuming and divisive.  Planning for new projects within the context of a county strategy and comprehensive plan is considered an effective practice. I reinforced the importance of comprehensive planning in a November 21, 2017 guest column in the Brown County Democrat titled “Success is a choice.”

An exception to the project norm is the government-owned Maple Leaf music venue where the project was not subject to a remonstrance and was fast-tracked. Commissioners and council refused to conduct an independent feasibility study. They also refused to hold public meetings to obtain citizen input on the desirability of this project and to consider additional investment options that may have resulted in a higher benefit for all county citizens. They also refused to review the complete business plan before approving the project. Corruption is defined as to when a person’s conscience no longer registers right and wrong.  The process used to fast-track Maple Leaf was corrupt.  If the proposed courthouse project is fast-tracked, it will most likely lead to a successful remonstrance, delay needed improvements, and further erode people’s trust in local government and its elected representatives.

A way ahead?  It would be time and money well-spent to contract for development of an updated comprehensive report and presentation that integrates all the information that has been obtained in identifying the best options for the county. This report should provide the information that citizens can consider in making an informed decision. Further, select a consultant from a company that could not bid on design and construction related work.  And lastly, specify that the report should also include a recommendation regarding better practices for identifying, developing, managing, and gaining consensus for new projects.

Tim Clark
Brown County

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