Following his re-election as Franklin County Board chairman, Randall Crocker led a discussion Monday during a special meeting to revisit the courthouse issue.
Twice by referendum the voters have rejected a proposal to build a new courthouse. Now the county is attempting a new approach -- either a three-quarter or 1 percent sales tax. Officials estimate the tax could generate $2 million annually.
Preliminary estimates to build and demolish the 1875 courthouse have been placed at $15 million.
If the proposed sales tax is approved, a "sunset clause" would be attached to include wording that the tax will be removed when the project is paid for. Estimated time for removal of the clause is 12 years. If the sales tax is for three-quarter cents, it may be removed in 15 years.
County officials said architects have recommended the main entrance to the new courthouse face west with a sally port on the east side.
"Security is the biggest issue faced daily with the current courthouse," the proposal states. "A new courthouse would eliminate prisoners from entering and leaving the courthouse through the main entrance with a sally port on the east side where prisoners enter the courthouse through a separate entrance. Currently, many days we have prisoners and families of victims entering and leaving the courthouse through the same hallways and doors."
Additionally, county officials want to move the county clerk and treasurer's office permanently to the Campbell Building. These offices would be located on the south end of the building, which is now used for storage.
Also, the circuit clerk's office and all court operations will be moved to the east side of the Benton Public Square in the recently closed antique store. Circuit Clerk Jim Muir reported the building has two floors with about 5,000 square feet on each floor and has adequate space and restroom facilities for this "temporary" move.
Muir said the antique store is owned by Bryan and Christen Drew. They are in the process of renovating the building, including new brick on the front of the building.
"Their long term plans are to make the building an events center. There would have to be a courtroom established on the lower floor because there is no elevator. The Drews have agreed to rent the building for $2,000 per month," Muir said.
No one in the packed room where the county board meets in the Campbell Building disagreed that a new courthouse is needed, including Benton Mayor Fred Kondritz and Sesser Mayor Jason Ashmore.
Taking his robe off after swearing in new board members, Judge Tom Tedeschi offered, "One thing I know we do have to have is a courthouse. We definitely need to look forward and get it done." Tedeschi backed up claims that the courthouse lacks security measures to protect victims and their families and jury pools.
Board members repeatedly shared information about the poor condition of the structure; and it was reported the old boiler and air conditioning units at the courthouse are currently costing taxpayers more than $1,000 per month in repairs and labor costs.
Several audience members communicated reasons why they believe the two former referendums failed and offered advice on how best to sell the new courthouse proposal.
Crocker said the issue will be discussed again in committee on Dec. 17, with board action expected at its regular meeting on Dec. 18.
Judge Tedeschi swore in members Crocker, Neil Hargis, Jack Warren, Ray Minor and Kevin Weston to begin the meeting. Larry Miller was absent. New officeholders -- Sheriff David Bartoni and Treasurer Steve Vercellino, were sworn in Friday.