Courthouse 'a pit': With extra tax money, county talks about moving out of Marion

Staff writer

With property value rising by the equivalent of 2.882 mills, Marion County hopes to raise taxes without increasing tax rates next year.

In the process, commissioners are trying to assemble a contingency fund, set to approach $1 million by next year, that could be used to move out of a historic Marion building, relocate some operations out of Marion, and perhaps eventually replace the courthouse.

“The courthouse is nothing but a pit,” Commissioner Randy Dallke of Peabody said during a budget work session last week. “It’s going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”

When certified public accountant Scot Loyd, hired to help with budgeting, interjected, “But it’s beautiful, right?” Dallke responded: “A new building could be just as beautiful.”

Commission Chairman Roger Fleming of Hillsboro added: “What’s the value to the county of the courthouse being on the historic registry?”

A key concern appears to be the courthouse’s windows, which Clerk Tina Spencer of Peabody complained were drafty and “really ugly with all those storm windows and screens.”

The commission wants to replace the windows, but the state rejected an initial proposal because the relatively inexpensive but energy-efficient frames the county wanted to install were inconsistent with standards for structures, like the courthouse, that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Marion, the Hill School, the Elgin Hotel, and Marion County Park and Lake are on the registry. Marion Presbyterian Church is on a similar state registry.

Commissioner Dan Holub, who represents the Marion area, was away on a family rafting trip to Montana during the discussions but occasionally exchanged barbs with fellow commissioners via text messages relayed by Spencer.

Money the commission is setting aside in a “multipurpose building fund,” projected to total $936,836 by next year, is designed in part to move the Health Department out of the Bowron Building, one of Marion’s last remaining stone buildings, half a block north of the courthouse square.

A separate $120,000 fund, newly named “county building maintenance,” might in the interim help pay for a new roof, if needed, on that building.

“How do we get out of the health building and get it in courthouse square so people of the county won’t have to travel over to it?” Dallke asked. “We also have to get the transfer station and roads and bridges department out of the city.”

The two commissioners at the workshop seemed eager to replace the county’s waste transfer and recycling facility, currently housed in Marion’s former power plant, and possibly to centralize county shops near Aulne, presumably closing a location on Lawrence and Coble Sts. on Marion’s east side.

Socking away money now, when more tax money will come in because of increased valuation attributable to removal of exemptions and residential construction, especially at the county lake, would allow such projects to go forward without the need for bond elections or borrowing.

“We’re being fiscally responsible by planning for the future,” Fleming said. “If people want to complain that we should cut taxes instead, they can come to me and I will explain that I pay a lot of taxes, too. They need to know we’re trying to spend money wisely, not just to raise the mill levy.”

Within virtually every county department, commissioners hope to continue socking away tax money not needed to meet current expenses to allow for future purchases of equipment, especially vehicles, which county standards call for replacing every five years.

The alternative — obtaining equipment via lease-purchase agreements — is something commissioners would like to avoid.

As Dallke told road and bridge superintendent Randy Crawford during Crawford’s portion of the workshop: “Having nine graders on lease is not a good place to be.”

Several department heads seemed reluctant to request new vehicles next year even if current vehicles met age requirements and sufficient money had been socked away from past budgets to pay for them.

“We have no need for a new vehicle with only 40,000 miles on ours,” planning and zoning administrator Tonya Richards told the commissioners.

Sheriff Rob Craft said he was considering delaying a vehicle purchase planned for this year to next year, even though the vehicle in question has 134,000 miles on it.

Coordinator Gayla Ratzlaff said her department on aging used both of its two vans only once a year.

“The bigger van is basically just sitting there,” she said, leading to discussion of whether to purchase a single new van and trade off or reassign the two existing vans.

Appraiser Ray Cook told the commissioners his department had a Ford Crown Victoria that “never gets used.”

When one of the commissioners asked: “Is that the brown one?” Cook replied: “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.”

One of the few department heads making a real pitch for a new vehicle was economic development director Teresa Huffman.

She said that her office’s van had rust and peeling paint and that she wanted to cover whatever vehicle she used in a “wrap” decal consisting of images of the county, especially its two lakes.

Spencer also made a pitch, not only for a vehicle but also for a trailer that election clerks could use to deliver voting materials to and from polling places.

She said that workers currently use a pool vehicle and borrow a trailer from the health department the day before and after elections, but that having a $2,500 to $3,000 trailer of their own would eliminate the need to borrow.

She also said she would love to see the county pay for a mobile polling place to be used for advance voting, though she conceded initial efforts at establishing early polling places haven’t increased voter participation.

Loyd, of the McPherson accounting firm of Swindoll, Janzen, Hawk & Loyd, will continue assembling requests from department heads and commissioners and prepare a draft budget for presentation to the commission July 28.

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