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NWA editorial: Final deliberations?

Benton County appears closer on courts solution

Benton County leaders are honing in on a well-constructed, reasonable funding plan for a courts building that acknowledges a reality: A 50- to 100-year solution to meet the court system needs of a growing population can't be done by just pinching pennies.

Oh, pennies can be pinched along the way, but consolidating a disjointed collection of courtrooms and related functions into one downtown building designed to also absorb future needs will require money. More money than the county has on hand or that can be stripped out of its annual budgets without gutting services most county residents expect to be delivered.

What’s the point?

A developing plan to fund a new courts facility for Benton County is a conservative, reasonable approach.

If Benton County's court facilities were an automobile, it would be that old jalopy a tight-fisted motorist has driven and nurtured along with shade-tree repairs and reconditioned parts until the guy at the auto store has to say "They don't make parts for that model anymore."

The county has only one judge operating in what was designed to be a courtroom, in a building constructed nearly 100 years ago. The rest are make-do locations in separate buildings originally intended for other uses. Taxpayers who demand government live within its means can find satisfaction that Benton County has squeezed its courts system to meet that standard for many years. As with any old, well-worn car, there comes a time when a replacement must be found.

For years now, county leaders have talked and talked about a solution, acknowledging the need but struggling to get comfortable with a way forward. It appears County Judge Barry Moehring and the Quorum Court are now getting close.

Last Wednesday, members of the Quorum Court who were at a committee meeting voted 9-2 to have an ordinance prepared to ask voters for a one-eighth percent sales tax to raise an estimated $24.5 million over its four-year, three-month lifespan. It is the smallest sales tax increment state law allows.

The goal is to pay for a $30 million, 86,000-square-foot building on Northeast Second Street with room for eight courtrooms. The county now has five judgeships that would be moved into the building, but a new judgeship is anticipated in the future. Two courtrooms would be left as shells and finished years down the line when they're needed.

The plan anticipates the rest of the money needed to build and equip the new courts facility would be allocated by the Quorum Court each year from existing revenue, either from reserves (taxes already collected) or from savings within the county's annual budget. The funding plan combines a fiscally conservative use of existing resources while also asking voters to shoulder a short-term burden to build what would be the first new courthouse in Benton County since 1928. The old courthouse, on the Bentonville Square, would continue to be used for county operations. The new building will be across the street.

So what about those two opposing votes? One Quorum Court member said he opposed any new tax, a comfortable stance that nonetheless does nothing to solve Benton County's challenges. Unlike our federal government, county government has to have the money available to build a project like this. Thank goodness for that. Local government cannot function with unfunded debt and nobody should want it to. The money has to come from somewhere. And the courts are a constitutional responsibility of county government, i.e., taxpayers.

A generic, never-wavering anti-tax attitude doesn't serve the people of Benton County. The Quorum Court will ask voters to make a decision to meet a local need. A project such as this can't be paid for through existing revenue if county leaders have been fiscally conservative about asking for taxes in the past. That necessitates asking voters for the revenue to address the need once it's identified and demonstrated. From our perspective, the need is unquestionable.

County leaders have examined plenty of options. What they're favoring right now is short-term financing that will be paid off through the lowest-increment sales tax available under state law. At the end of a little more than four years, the county will have a secure, paid-for courts facility with room for the future. The tax -- collected, by the way, from residents and visitors alike -- will disappear once it has raised the money for the building.

A second Quorum Court member balked because of concerns over debt and unanswered questions, but as we've noted, the debt is short-term and manageable. As for unanswered questions, the Quorum Court has been discussing this project for more than five years. How many questions can really be unanswered?

We think County Judge Moehring and other members of the Quorum Court have done a great job answering the questions.

Benton County needs a modern, efficient judicial system with serious security measures. Trials and hearings are necessarily adversarial in nature, a fact that leads to tensions among the opposing sides. The current setup simply does not address security to any satisfactory level.

Most of us go through our day-to-day living without being part of a trial or other court proceeding. That's something to be happy about. But our courts are every bit as important as our jails and law enforcement officers in the administration of justice and keeping our communities safe.

Benton County is on a measured, conservative path toward a solution for its court challenges in a way that is a good fit for this growing county.

Commentary on 05/13/2018

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