Sales tax referendum's passage would help fund new courthouse

A countywide sales tax referendum is on the Feb. 2 Union County primary election ballot.

Voters will be asked to approve a 1 percent increase in the county's share of the local sales tax.

Funding generated by the increase in the sales tax would allow for the construction of a new Union County Courthouse.

If the measure were to be approved, it would mean that consumers would pay an additional $1 in sales tax for every $100 "of tangible personal property bought at retail."

The proposal could generate somewhere in the range of $900,000 to $1 million a year. The revenue would be impacted by the strength of the local economy.

The commissioners approved a resolution last November to place the issue on the 2010 primary election ballot.

The action taken by the commissioners comes after a review of the status of the aging courthouse by a committee made up of Union County residents. The committee was appointed by the county board.

The sales tax proposition resolution declares that:

"The Union County Courthouse has well-served the people of Union County for over 150 years.

"Despite the best efforts of County officials, in recent years the Courthouse has fallen into disrepair and does not constitute an adequate facility for Court, County offices or for the public conducting business within the Courthouse.

"The condition of the Courthouse does not provide for the adequate safeguarding and preservation of Court and County records.

"The Courthouse is not accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

"Numerous County offices are currently housed in separate buildings because of space limitations in the Courthouse resulting in costly expenses in maintaining County offices in multiple locations and preventing the public from conducting business with the various County offices at one location.

"The cost to repair and improve the Courthouse is estimated to be between six million and nine million dollars and such repairs and improvements would not provide additional space needed for record storage or expansion of County offices."

Given the current state of the existing courthouse, the county commissioners believe "that the best and most equitable way to pay for the cost of construction of a new Union County Courthouse would be through the imposition of a sales tax increase without raising property taxes."

Illinois law allows a county board to "impose a sales tax to provide revenue to be used exclusively for public facility purposes in that county, if a proposition for the tax has been submitted to the electors of that county and approved by a majority of those voting on the question."

Since the passage of the resolution, county commissioners and representatives of the courthouse committee have been meeting with groups, organizations and individuals to discuss the need for a new facility. Public tours of the courthouse have been offered.

County officials noted that once the courthouse is paid for, then the sales tax  will be removed.

Initial Discussion

Initially, discussion by county officials focused on two questions:

Should the Union County Courthouse be remodeled?

Or, should a new courthouse be built?

The Union County Board of Commissioners subsequently appointed a committee made up of 11 community members who have been looking at the status, and future, of the courthouse in Jonesboro.

The committee focused its attention on what is the third oldest courthouse in Illinois which is still being used as a courthouse.

The original courthouse structure was built in 1857-1858, with major additions completed in 1894, 1963, 1967 and 1976.

An informational document was drafted and made available to the public. The document focused on key issues surrounding the courthouse:

Question: Do We Remodel the Courthouse or Build a New Structure?

1. Cost to remodel the courthouse is $6 million. The cost of a new courthouse is $17 million.

2. Space available in a remodeled courthouse total 19,227 square feet. Space in a new courthouse would total 56,000 square feet.

3. All county offices, including the sheriff, 911 offices, assessor, general assistance, county clerk's election equipment would be under one roof in a new courthouse. The expense of maintaining five separate buildings would be eliminated.

4. A new or remodeled courthouse would meet handicapped accessibility requirements.

5. The courthouse would stay in Jonesboro, which is Union County's seat of government.

6. Climate-controlled conditions would be available for documents in a new or remodeled facility.

7. More secure and safe surroundings would be offered in a new or remodeled courthouse.

8. Long-term maintenance would be greatly reduced in a newly constructed facility.

9. Money to finance a new courthouse could be secured through grants from USDA's Rural Development Community Facility loan program, the federal court system, 911 and an increase of 1 percent in the county retails sales tax from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent. Marion's sales tax is 8.5 percent, Carbondale's is 7.76 percent and Cape Girardeau's is 7.975 percent.

The handout noted there would be "no increase in property taxes," with the statement in all capital letters.

10. A proposal would be made to find an appropriate group/business/government entity to preserve and make use of the original 1858 courthouse and 1894 additions.

11. "Our public buildings reflect our quality of life, our community spirit and our commitment to provide the highest level of services to our citizens."

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