Let me start by saying I am in favor of building a new courthouse. The current courthouse is obsolete and must be replaced. But that doesn’t mean I support the plan to build a $47 million courthouse in Downtown Milton. And no matter how many times Mr. Rob Williamson calls me a knucklehead on his Facebook page, I won’t be deterred.
Clearly, I am not alone in these opinions. Both countywide and specifically among Navarre voters, the issue of building the courthouse was voted down. When asked to vote in 2014 to support a 1 cent sales tax to pay for a new $50 million courthouse, 67 percent of Navarre voters said “NO!” When asked if the new courthouse should be in the Downtown Milton location, 75 percent of Navarre voters said “NO!” Both of these numbers exceeded the overall county “NO” votes of 56 percent and 64 percent, respectively.
The Downtown Milton location issues are well-known. They include a lack of parking, drainage and wetland and traffic issues, train noise and a lack of room for future growth. Commissioner Rob Williamson even cited these exact reasons as why he initially was against the Downtown Milton location. Of course, that all changed when he decided to run for County Commissioner.
Once it was Candidate Williamson, “Build it in Downtown Milton” became his battle cry. Don’t take my word for it; there is a video on YouTube of him addressing the BOCC before the election where he speaks in support of the downtown location, to the applause of the many Milton residents in attendance.
If you watch the video, Candidate Williamson says the reason he changed his mind is that the facts didn’t support his prior conclusions. Evidently, there was supposed to be a three-story parking garage built to solve the parking issues. I can’t find that in the current plans. Even though both locations not in Downtown Milton were less expensive to build on, Candidate Williamson still felt that the best location was in Milton. He referenced a traffic study that supposedly supported Downtown Milton but I’ve read that study a couple times and all I can find is that if you live in Milton or Jay, then Downtown Milton is the best location. If you live anywhere else in the county, then it is the worst of the three locations.
The courthouse issue is not a new one. This process began in 1999 when the BOCC formed a task force to look into a new courthouse. Since then, hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars have been spent on studies, plans, meetings and more studies, plans and meetings. I get why the BOCC is frustrated. What I don’t get is why they caused this issue to drag on when our neighbor to the east managed to resolve many similar issues without all this delay and expense.
Okaloosa County is similar to SRC in that they have a geographically split county north and south. Their solution was to build a second smaller judicial center in Shalimar. Now they are in the process of replacing their courthouse in Crestview. By splitting the building into two, they are able to better serve their residents, reduce travel time and expense and offer better overall service to their growing county without financially burdening their citizens. Best of all, because this was part of a long-term plan, they are able to keep the new courthouse affordable and don’t expect to have to raise taxes to pay for it.
Why didn’t Santa Rosa County adopt this type of strategy back in 1999? If you go back and read the initial discussion back in 1999 by the SRC Courthouse Task Force, they reference Okaloosa County’s solution but dismiss it because it would mean some judges and county employees would have to drive a longer distance to work.
Regardless of the location, $47 million is just too much to spend. Our school superintendent is talking about needing two new schools at a cost of $60 million, Navarre Beach Bridge needs to be replaced at a cost of $200 million, HBTS needs $60 million in drainage remediation, the Navarre Beach sewage treatment plant needs to be shut down and a pipe laid under the Sound at a cost of $5 million and then there are millions of dollars of paving projects that need to get done and roads to be repaired, sidewalks to be installed, ditches to be dug and so on. Saving $15 or $20 million on this courthouse goes a long way to paying for other needs and keeping our rising tax burdens under control.
Commissioner Rob Williamson may think that name calling is the best way to avoid the serious discussion on the needs of Santa Rosa County, but I do not. We need a new courthouse, and we need to find a way to make it work for the whole county. We need to find a solution that costs less, makes sense and is located in a more accessible location. The responsibility of our elected officials is to do the work to make sure our taxes go up as little as possible. I expect nothing less. And as for Mr. Williamson…he has it wrong, I’m not a knucklehead for speaking up; I would be a knucklehead if I didn’t.
TJ Goulet is a resident of Santa Rosa County and lives in Navarre.
Editor’s Note: The latest figures for the Okaloosa County Courthouse in Crestview are $25 million which includes the temporary relocation and reshuffling of offices at the courthouse annex facility in Shalimar. Gov. Rick Scott denied the $1 million that had been requested by the Legislature for updates to the Crestview Courthouse, along with two other projects in Okaloosa County.