County explains need for courthouse repairs

Lisa Hammer

 Henry County voters will decide on Feb. 2 whether individuals will pay an estimated $9 to $12 more in sales tax each year for 10 years to fund exterior repair of the 130-year-old county courthouse.

The courthouse roof and walls are no longer weather-proof. Project estimates include $500,000 for lead paint removal and abatement, $261,400 for scaffolding, $462,600 for roofing, $105,247 for masonry and $101,800 for windows. Clock tower repair is $108,500, but half of the clock tower cost will come from a grant from Landmarks Illinois, a historic preservation organization.

 It will be the second attempt for a 1/4-of-a-cent public facility sales tax referendum to increase the tax from 6.25 to 6.5 percent. The first referendum was defeated last spring, with 3,525 yes votes and 4,567 no.

 If it should fail?

 “I suppose we'll revert to history,” said county board chairman Tom Nicholson. “It failed the last time and we tried again.

 “I don't think a person gets anywhere by using scare tactics, but there is a reality here,” he continued.

 He compared the situation to a homeowner letting a hole in the roof go. “You keep letting it go and go without doing the necessary repair, and eventually you don't have a roof left and your house deteriorates.”

 He said the same thing will happen here.

 “It no longer becomes repairable, and you're looking at replacement, and that's just reality,” he said. “We would prefer doing the necessary repair work so the building lasts for decades and decades, rather than shift the responsibility to our children with a new building and those property taxes. Better to bite the bullet now.”

 He added that with a sales tax, the cost is shared by people from outside Henry County who buy here. The tax does not apply to titled vehicles, groceries, medical costs and farm equipment. Nicholson noted much of the job--the abatement of toxic materials--is required by law once renovation work is begun.

 Repairs themselves will cost approximately $2.8 million. Figuring in interest, the estimated total cost is $3.9 million. The estimated annual amount needed to service the debt ranges up to a maximum of $397,631, according to county administrator Colleen Gillaspie, but the county has to show it can afford an additional 25 percent cushion of $497,039 per year. She noted figures are estimates until bonds are bid and sold. It's believed the tax could raise an estimated $600,000 per year, based on 2008 retail sales in the county.

 In contrast, the cost of building a new courthouse/jail complex would be more than $15 million, according to the architect's estimate.

 Greg Peterson of Galva and Harold Ford of Geneseo are co-chairs of a 17-member citizens' committee formed last fall to work towards approval of the referendum.

 Peterson is a structural engineer with Bruner, Cooper and Zuck in Galesburg. Prior to moving here in 2000 from Springfield, he had experience with historical structures including the current capitol building.

 He said the courthouse is largely sheet metal above the roof line and returning it to its original condition costs significantly more.

 “There are a lot of factors why it didn't get done in the past,” he said. “Buildings like this with those types of materials have lasted 600 years elsewhere in the world.” Castles, he said, are one example of long-lasting structures with similar, but not identical materials.

 He said a temporary retail sales that will cost each person an estimated $9 to $12 per year is a better solution than handing down the cost to the next generation.

 The tax will end after 10 years. Administration committee chairman Tom Steele noted the bonding agent has said he believes the tax could generate $600,000 to $800,000 a year, which would allow the county board to retire the tax in seven or eight years.

 “We've said that we will do that,” he said.

 County board member Bill Preston, however, maintains the county can't afford more taxes, and recommends as a first step repairing just the roof leaks, without scaffolding.

 County administrator Colleen Gillaspie stated the higher stories are where the most repairs are needed, and therefore she believes scaffolding is needed for the biggest majority of the work.

 Jens and Judy Rehder of Andover are both on the citizens committee; he is a former history teacher and she a former county board member.

 Mr. Rehder said many parts of the courthouse exterior have not had much work.

 “The upkeep just hadn't been done like it should be over many, many years, and if you replace it, it would cost many, many times what it would be now,” he said.

 He said the sales taxes are better than property taxes because it's “almost a tourism tax” for people who stay in hotels and eat at restaurants, sometimes visiting the courthouse. He said in contrast, property taxes would unfairly hit people like farmers, who own the most land.

 Kewanee Fire Chief Tom Weston, another member of the citizens' committee, said it will be cheaper to fix the building now than to replace it. He termed the building structurally sound and said it's necessary to keep it that way. He said he wasn't struck with the need for any single repair, but rather a “compilation of everything all together.”

 Banker Jerry Meyer of Orion recalled meeting with the architect and the investment banker as well as seeing water damage on the second floor of the courthouse. He said what had the most impact for him was the photographs of exterior paint flaking on the third story.

 “In my mind, as long as we're needing to work on the upper stories, doing that significant work to handle the damage, now is the time to also do historic renovation,” he said.

 He said it would be up to the voters to make the decision.