Benton County voters to decide if new courts facility is long overdue or more than necessary

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 456 views 

Through the county courthouse’s third-floor conference room windows, Benton County Judge Barry Moehring shares how he sees a new county courts campus fitting “efficiently” among existing buildings in the historic downtown Bentonville square.

The judge also sees a lot of Michael Kalagais.

What Moehring and other county officials see is a need to provide modern “21st-century capacity” for judicial and other functions now packed in a 90-year-old building with a patchwork of additions and offices scattered around the county.

It will also require a shared vision among Benton County voters. The Benton County Quorum Court has asked voters to consider a one-eighth cent sales tax increase for 54 months (4.5) to raise $25 million for the estimated $30 million project. The election is set for March 12, with early voting to begin Tuesday (March 5).

The expansion and modernization plan includes an estimated 400 new parking spaces, more space and consolidation for prosecutors and public defenders, and space for the expected addition of circuit court judges courtesy of the county’s rapid population growth. An expansion would create space to house up to eight judges. And instead of numerous security checkpoints for the courts, the new facility would have just one checkpoint.

Moehring said a team representing all stakeholders in the project met to work out expansion details. That work, he said, included some tough discussions and hard compromises.

“We all worked together on this. We had meeting after meeting after meeting. Now, I won’t tell you they were all easy meetings,” Moehring said.

From a population perspective, seeking a new courts facility is understandable. The Benton County population was around 35,000 in 1928 when the courthouse was built in downtown Bentonville. The population less than 90 years later has grown almost eight times the size to an estimated mark of 266,300 in 2017.

“The courthouse was originally constructed for only one judge and a single courtroom,” notes language on the “Better Courthouse, Better Benton County” website advocating for passage of the tax. “Today, there are three Circuit Judges in the courthouse with two of them in rooms that were not originally built to be courtrooms. Benton County’s Circuit Judges already have the highest population per capita in the state, and since growth is not slowing down, the existing facilities are simply unable to accommodate further growth.”

Construction of the new and renovated facilities could be complete within 20 to 28 months — depending primarily on weather — if voters approve the tax, Moehring said.

With a “very strong anti-tax sentiment” among the electorate, any tax increase, no matter how slight, how limited or for what purpose, is always a tough sell in Benton County, Moehring said. The top question he receives is, “Why the tax?” His summarized answer is that the needs are now, the issue has been studied for years, and the plan emerged as the best and least expensive solution. And issuing bonds — going into debt — could add up to $9 million to the cost. He also reminds county residents that $3 million in private dollars have been pledged — including $2 million from the Walton Family Foundation — to help offset the project cost.

Addressing the anti-tax sentiment has Moehring on the road. He estimates speaking at 35 events, including at least 12 town hall meetings, before the election is over.

Attending most of those meetings is Kalagais, a member of the Benton County Libertarian Party, who believes new facilities are needed but asserts county officials are using those needs to “justify doing more than is necessary.” The county has $15 million in reserves that could cover the cost of a less expansive project that still meets the capacity needs, according to Kalagais.

“We could build a more modest building that would work, and you wouldn’t need to raise the tax or go into debt,” Kalagais said.

Kalagais also said the county has not fully considered the impact of an expanded courts facility on the downtown area.

“The downtown infrastructure is already strained. If you bring in seven or eight more judges … and all that goes with that, how do you get all of those people downtown?”

The county does have $15 million in reserves, but Moehring said the Benton County Quorum Court believes a reserve must be maintained.

“The quorum court has consistently decided to not take those too low in the event of emergencies or other needs. It would be foolish and financially dangerous to spend down the reserves to zero,” he said.

Kalagais admitted that the modest plan they proposed did not have the detail of other plans studied by the county, but it proved a less expensive path was possible. However, he said, those opposed to the plan now on the ballot are frustrated county officials refused to give it any consideration.

“We didn’t expect [a smaller plan] to be adopted based on that [rough architectural drawing], but it showed that it could be done,” Kalagais said. “They had their plan and didn’t want to consider anything else.”

Kalagais said those opposed to the tax are not likely to form a campaign committee through the Arkansas Ethics Commission. They instead plan to focus on grassroots efforts — attending meetings, making phone calls — to defeat the tax increase.

State law requires individuals or groups who collect or spend more than $500 to campaign for or against a local ballot question to file with the commission and submit financial reports (see sidebar).

Better Courthouse, Better Benton County filed Nov. 29 with the commission. Officers are Jay Allen, chairman; Leah Whitehead, treasurer; and Marshall Ney, legal counsel. Non-officer members of the committee are Susan Anglin, Graham Cobb, Don Kendall and Moehring.

As of Feb. 14, the Better Courthouse, Better Benton County group had raised $39,876 and spent $701.77. Most of the expenditure ($615) was with radio station KURM AM/FM in Rogers.

Following are some of the top donors to the Better Courthouse campaign, according to the Arkansas Ethics Commission:

  • $5,178: The Committee for the Future of Rogers
  • $5,000: Hight Jackson & Associates
  • $5,000: Mitchell Williams Selig & Gates
  • $5,000: Todd Simmons
  • $5,000:  Nabholz Corp.
  • $2,500: First National Bank of Fort Smith
  • $2,500: MSA Engineering
  • $2,500: Don Kendall, Kendal Law Firm
  • $2,500: Friday Eldredge & Clark
  • $2,500: Mike Power
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