Officials OK pay-as-you-go courthouse renovations

Officials OK pay-as-you-go courthouse renovations

February 29th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

The rosy outlook for the county's financial picture changed last week when the financial report for the first four months of the fiscal year that began Sept. 1, 2011, was marked with red ink.

Even though expenditures for the first third of FY2012 were 3.8 percent less than budgeted, revenues for the same period were down 7 percent, according to Carl Henson, Catoosa County's financial officer.

"In summary, expenditures exceed revenues by $341,615," he said during last Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

One result of this unfavorable shift is commissioners deciding that renovation of the county courthouse and justice building will be funded, and done, in phases rather than as a single project.

The 2008 special purpose local option sales tax referendum earmarked $1 million for renovations of the courthouse, built in 1939, and the adjacent justice building, built in the 1980s, that once housed the sheriff's office and jail.

Two main stumbling blocks impede the work's rapid completion, according to County Manager Mike Helton.

The cost to incorporate all the needed additions and renovations is now more than double the original estimate. At the same time the price tag has increased, while an ongoing recession has meant sales tax collections are now projected to generate about $800,000 during the SPLOST cycle.

"Needs are larger than allocated," he said.

The county's board of commissioners has decided that at least 30 percent of its funding must be collected before any work begins. The amount on hand will cover the original projection.

Ringgold-based architect Ross Andrews provided estimates of a renovation project that could be done in a single piece or divided into two phases, one to be done now and the other to be undertaken when a new SPLOST cycle begins.

"The proposal today is for the design of the entire project," Commission Chairman Keith Greene said.

The overall goal of the renovations are to make moving between the two buildings easier, make the complex meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and to improve the safety and security of those using the buildings.

It is also critical during renovations that water infiltration be checked, the basement be waterproofed, space be added for the perpetual storage of legal records and the number of courtrooms be expanded.

"We want to make it a place everyone would be proud of," Helton said.

Greene termed the project "a critical matter in my opinion," but, along with the other commissioners, expressed concerns that committing to the entire renovation means drawing from reserves or borrowing money with the assumption that voters will approve a new SPLOST referendum in 2013.

The county tries to maintain reserves above state requirements, to both serve as a "rainy day" fund to deal with the unexpected - like a flood or tornado - and to get more favorable rates if and when it is necessary to borrow money.

"If we didn't have so many liabilities [Costco site prep and tornado cleanup among them] we could proceed with the entire project," Greene said.

Commissioner DeWayne Hill asked how long it might take to complete the first phase and was told by Andrews that phase could be done in about 18 months.

Commissioner Bobby Winters posed the possibility of borrowing the money necessary to do the entire project and paying back the loan with future SPLOST revenue.

Henson said if a SPLOST referendum is adopted next year, collections would begin in 2014.

But that assumes voters even extend the optional sales tax for another five-year term. And whether or not SPLOST is renewed in 2013, the way optional sales tax dollars are divvied up could change before then. Just as the decennial census means voting districts are redrawn, every 10 years municipal and county governments must adjust their division of sales taxes.

The 2009 SPLOST distribution earmarked 12.7 percent of collections for Fort Oglethorpe and 4.5 percent for Ringgold, with the county keeping the rest.

"We fully intend to complete the project, but I think we need to be extremely prudent and fiscally responsible," Commissioner Jim Cutler said.

He said he favored a pay-as-you-go approach, one that would use the current SPLOST to fund Phase I rather than doing the whole project in anticipation of SPLOST being renewed.

"I suggest we strongly consider Phase I and see how the economy progresses," he said. "We can always add Phase II later."

Andrews said he would be willing to go either with a multi-phased or a single overall project, but noted, "It makes sense to do all the drawing and design for the overall project."

The commissioners agreed that Andrews would be paid $99,000 to prepare a detailed plan both for engineering and for overall design, that could be done in two phases.

Afterwards, Probate Judge Gene Lowery offered his thanks to the commissioners for their decision to consider the courthouse's many needs and their willingness to move forward.

"There is nothing presented [to the commissioners] that is not necessary," the judge said. "The renovation is overdue."