The Ritchie County Commission met with community members on Thursday afternoon to discuss the proposed Judicial Annex project and to address concerns associated with it.
Commissioner Sam Rogers said the commission started discussing the project in 2002, as a way to make room for the family court. The family court is currently shared with the circuit court space.
Rogers said the commission spent time considering other building space and had initial cost estimates of $2 million.
The commission said the additional space is necessary to meet family court requirements and make the courthouse handicapped accessible and ADA compliant.
The current proposal is just over $5 million, which includes $4 million for the building and $1 million for associated expenses.
Rogers said the county would take out a 35-year loan from the USDA, costing the county roughly $200,000 per year. Rogers said the county could defer those payments up to five years if it ever became a financial issue. Rogers said the county would earn nearly $70,000 per year in rentals that would go toward utility fees and paying off the loan. In addition, Rogers said oil and gas revenues could allow the county to pay it off in 15 years.
Rogers told residents that the proposed annex would be directly attached to the current courthouse, and would have three floors. It would be built in the location of the old Magistrate Court that was recently leveled. The first floor would house the Magistrate Office and waiting and conference rooms. The second floor would be used for the Prosecuting Attorney's Office and Assessor's Office, leaving the third floor for the Family Court.
Commission also said the new facility would help with security issues.
Residents at Thursday's meeting voiced concerns on a wide range of issues, but by far the biggest argument and arena of debate was the financial burden on the county and taxpayers.
The commission said it has had a $500,000 budget surplus the last few years. Residents asked why the commission couldn't pay for the new facility in cash.
One resident told commissioners that there are other options for the facility and other projects that money should be used for.
Rogers responded by saying using multiple buildings for county offices wouldn't address handicap accessibility issues and would cause inconveniences for residents needing to visit multiple offices. He said having the annex connected to the current building would make both buildings ADA compliant. Rogers used Lewis County as an example of a county that needed additional space and accessibility. Lewis County recently opened up a new annex.
Residents also told the commission that it is not necessary for the annex to be directly next to or attached to the building, as they say it is more costly and aesthetically distracting. One resident told commissioners that this could affect the historical value of the structure.
In response to ADA compliance, a resident asked the commission to consider adding an elevator to the current structure, and asked about the status of a chair lift that was supposed to be added to the courthouse staircase.
In addition, residents asked the commission to consider traffic patterns in the area, and brought up lack of parking space as another area of concern. Another resident questioned pedestrian safety in the area if the annex goes in the proposed site.
Some residents clapped in support of those concerns, while others asked where people were the last few years while commission was considering all options.
The commission said it has a deadline for going into a loan agreement with the USDA, and already spent close to $300,000 in pre-project costs.
At the end of the public hearing portion of the meeting, Commissioner Stephen Worden asked commission to consider holding off until an assessment is made on oil and gas revenues in the county or until the county has set aside half of the funds necessary for the project. That motion did not carry for lack of a second from the other commissioners, while some residents left with the understanding that the motion carried.
Citing that misunderstanding, commission agreed to postpone the second reading of the ordinance until the next regularly scheduled meeting, which is set for September 12, 2013.
The county's legal counsel advised the commission it would not be a requirement to hold another public hearing.