On Jan. 3, 2019, the all-volunteer Jail/Law Enforcement Center/Courthouse Facility Committee held its first meeting. In addition to the seven volunteers, four members of the Board of Clay County Commissioners, Mayor Jack Powell, representing the interests of Vermillion, and key leaders of the offices housed in the courthouse and public safety center attended that first meeting. Since that first meeting, the committee has toured regional jails, law enforcement centers, courthouses, and county government offices, carefully considered the Klein McCarthy report, and discussed a lot of options.

Along the way we provided several updates on our progress to the Board of Clay County Commissioners and to the public though reports published in the PlainTalk and on the county’s website. Our meetings were open to the public and were announced in advance on the county website.

The committee’s view of our charge was to recommend to the Board of Clay County Commissioners the best option to provide for the needs of Clay County for the coming decades. That recommendation was to construct a new jail, law enforcement center, courtroom and court and government services offices at a new site and seek to repurpose the current courthouse building. The projected cost of this recommendation was $41 million calculated using space recommendations significantly less than outlined in the Klein McCarthy studies and in consultation with architects and contractors familiar with current building costs, including the cost of historic renovations.

On March 30, 2021, The Board of Clay County Commissioners UNANIMOUSLY voted to seek a $41 million Bond to build the new facility at a new site in Vermillion.

The decision to not renovate the existing courthouse was based on matters of sound fiscal responsibility and the building’s fixed layout. The architects and contractors mentioned above determined the renovation of the existing Courthouse to cost between $10 and $14 million dollars. This renovation would be respectful of the historical character of the public spaces (hallways, central stairways, courtrooms, etc.) and the building exterior. The major ‘gut’ renovation would be in spaces such as the county and court services office spaces.

In the end, it was recognized the expensive renovations would not address all the deficiencies and problems associated with the existing building. Further, additional new construction would still be needed to address other issues, including the jail and law enforcement center and some ADA matters. Estimates for the combined renovation/expansion ranged from $51 to $55 million. This amount is obviously considerably more than building all new, and again, the renovated courthouse would still have issues that cannot be fixed by renovation alone.

The Jail/Law Enforcement/Courthouse Facility Committee considered a lot of options and could not find one that would renovate the courthouse that cost less. This includes scenarios closely related to the alternative plan proposed by the Save Our Historic Courthouse Committee. Again, the estimate for all new construction at a new site in Vermillion is the lowest of the scenarios considered.

The Save Our Historic Courthouse Committee is asking you to vote “no” on the June 8 bond issue in the hopes the Board of Clay County Commissioners will reconsider the decision not to renovate the courthouse. Inherent in their argument is the belief that renovation of the courthouse is so expensive only the taxpayers of Clay County can afford to fund it. In essence, they are asking you to vote NO to the current $41 million bond and to trust them that a less expensive renovation plan can be found. Interestingly, at the March 30, 2021 Board of Clay County Commissioners meeting, a motion to consider an alternative plan that would have renovated and used the Courthouse Building was discussed and voted down. The projected cost of this alternative plan in the motion was $55 million, $14 million more than the bond you are being asked to vote on June 8. This would have been a much bigger bond request than the current $41 million bond issue.

Voting No on the June 8 bond issue now will also cost more in borrowing and construction costs in the long run. Construction costs will increase. A one-year delay, or the two-year delay proposed by Dan Christopherson at the recent May 17 forum, will make things more expensive. Bond interest rates are at historic lows but are expected to go up. Wait two years, and the $41 million bond will seem like a bargain.

Regardless of how you vote on June 8, the Clay County Jail will close. Sheriff Howe has said this for some time.

Clay County taxpayers will see an increase in monthly spending on housing prisoners in other jails from $10,000 (April 2021) to $30,000 per month for the remainder of 2021 and $50,000 to $60,000 per month in 2022 and increasing annually thereafter. That monthly expenditure will continue to increase with time as Clay County’s inmate populations increases and the cost of using another county’s jail increases. This pattern of increased costs to house Clay County inmates will continue until a new jail is constructed.

Passing the June 8 bond means this expensive and required transfer of Clay County tax dollars to other jails will end in 2024. Failing to pass the June 8 bond means we do not know when, or even if, this monthly expense will end. This required expense will increase your taxes. Again, voting No will cost you more than voting yes.

To be clear, there is a future for the current courthouse building. The courthouse can be repurposed. Certainly, no one has proposed tearing it down or wants it to be abandoned. The Board of Clay County Commissioners has set aside $1 million to maintain the building for repurposing. The roof replacement and cleaning and tuckpointing of the courthouse exterior stone and brickwork is already being scheduled.

If the bond passes, the building will be available for repurposing near the end of 2024. This provides time for the Board of Clay County Commissioners and the Save Our Historic Courthouse Committee to work together in finding this new purpose. There are several examples of repurposed buildings in Vermillion. The Belbas Center, formerly a gym and armory, was repurposed to an essential recruitment and academic services building. The former city library was repurposed to a law office. The National Music Museum is a repurposed Carnegie library. Both the Belbas and music museum were largely renovated using private donations. We can repurpose the courthouse.

In summary, on June 8, please vote for the $41 million bond Issue. Yes, it is a big request to make, but a necessary one. It is also a smaller request than what the Save Our Historic Courthouse Committee is actually asking you to make when they ask you to vote no.

Board of Clay County Commissioner Chair Travis Mockler said it best – “This ($41 million) bond will provide Clay County with the facility we NEED and deserve at the lowest possible cost.” It is still a big request to approve a $41 million bond, but it is needed and is the least expensive option we have and provides the best solution to the needs of Clay County’s government, court system, and law enforcement. Please do what is best for Clay County and vote YES for the bond issue on June 8.

Steven Waller

Member, Jail/Law Enforcement/Courthouse Facility Committee

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