Courthouse quest still confounds commission

When ideas began to emerge for a new Santa Rosa County courthouse 17 years ago, District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker was a student at Milton High School.

While the 32-year-old freshman commissioner expressed optimism about prospects for a new courthouse at Monday’s board meeting, he saw firsthand examples of the disagreements and disparate approaches that have relegated a new judicial building to the drawing board through half of his lifetime.

Nevertheless, Parker, still new to the fray, said, “I feel confident this board will get this done.”

Maybe, but at the outset of the commissioners’ latest crusade to replace the nearly 90-year-old downtown Milton courthouse, they reopened old wounds, stalled over the same arguments and debated everything from the amount of land needed to whether their search for the right spot should be limited to free property from a donor.

They eventually decided to advertise an invitation for property owners to submit proposals on donating at least 10 acres. Those offers would presumably explain why the land is well located for a courthouse and what the donor would expect in return. For example, such a donation might require the county to install utilities that the property owner could access from nearby land retained for private development.

Reality check

The commissioners’ discussion on Monday hit a rough patch when Bob Cole of District 2 grilled District 4’s Rob Williamson about the latter’s assertion in February that he has a courthouse funding strategy that wouldn’t require an additional local option sales tax—which Santa Rosa voters rejected in a referendum last year.

Cole referred to a comment made at a Feb. 20 meeting when Williamson said: “I’m just trying to make this simple. We don’t need to keep fighting the same battles. … We can build it now. We don’t have to wait for another tax …”

Where would Williamson find the money, Cole asked, qualifying his query: “I don’t want to put you on the spot.”

But if Williamson has a secret financing strategy, Cole wanted to hear it and asserted, “I just don’t see where we have the money.”

At first, Williamson sidestepped an explanation and instead criticized Cole, who had long opposed the downtown Milton courthouse site that Williamson championed before the referendum defeat last year.

“You were victorious,” Williamson said with a glance at Cole, seated beside him at the board’s dais.

“I wasn’t victorious,” shot back Cole, who had eventually been persuaded by other commissioners to vote to put the Milton location on the referendum ballot so the board could present a unanimous front to gain public support.

Williamson, who owns a landscaping company, had been cryptic about his courthouse funding ideas at the February meeting during an exchange with Milton Mayor Wesley Meiss, who appeared before the board to say his city council would no longer press to locate a new courthouse in its downtown.

Though clearly dismayed that his alliance with Milton leaders had evaporated, Williamson nevertheless implied he could show the way to make the new courthouse a reality.

“If you ask any businessman to put forward to build a building that would house judicial services, they would very easily accomplish that task,” Williamson said.

Meiss, who hadn’t challenged Williamson’s leadership acumen—at least up to then–seemed perplexed and replied, “Do it.”

The taxpayers’ tab

But on Monday Williamson vacillated—acknowledging that no matter how the courthouse is eventually funded, it will be with taxpayers’ money.

District 3 Commissioner Don Salter stepped in when the conversation turned to whether the search for property should be limited to donated land. He insisted that the courthouse—estimated to cost in the range of $35 million to $40 million, should be located on the best site possible, even if that isn’t free.

“My position would be to go back and find a piece of property that serves the most people in the county,” Salter said. “Then we take the money out of capital reserves and buy property and take that debate out of it.”

The county’s financial records indicate that about $1 million is currently earmarked for capital projects. That money is actually part of Santa Rosa’s general reserve fund and is derived from several sources including ad valorem taxes. The total in that reserve is currently about $20 million. But the county has been cautious about using much of the accumulated surplus because it might be needed in case of a hurricane for emergency infrastructure repairs.

That leaves only one other likely funding source in the absence of an additional sales tax: the county could issue bonds, meaning it would take on debt that would eventually be paid mainly through ad valorem taxes. But that’s an unpopular approach politically because it might mean the commissioners would feel pressure to raise constituents’ property taxes to pay off the bonds quickly and thus minimize interest costs.

Potentially complicating all this is the Milton city council’s recent discussion about possibly wanting the courthouse to be in its downtown after all.

“I’m adamantly opposed to that,” said Cole. He asserted that county voters firmly decided against the proposed Milton location in last year’s referendum: “My idea is, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand.”

Now the commission is back to the drawing board to craft plans that their constituents will say yes to.

As seen in the April 13 issue of Navarre Press. Click here to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.

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