One percent tax would fund courthouse improvements

The Platte County Courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will get $4.875 million in improvements if county voters approve a 1 percent specific purpose excise tax question on the Aug. 21 primary election ballot.

Discussion touched on the needed improvements during the Platte County Historical Society’s tour of the courthouse March 27. One point of discussion was the federal mandate that a completely private room be available for a lawyer to confer with a client, but a broom closet was all the Platte County Courthouse had to offer.

“That’s not exactly true … the broom closet is an exaggeration,” Platte County Commission Chairman Steve Shockley said during an interview March 28. 

Shockley said limited space is available for lawyer/client meetings. He noted the space limitations can be inconvenient when multiple cases are in session in both District and Circuit courts.

Shockley said when the county first evaluated the condition of the courthouse, they focused on three basic areas: security, Americans with Disability Act compliance and mechanical/electrical/plumbing issues.

Shockley said security needs to be tighter not only for the courtroom, but for the sake of staff in the entire building. 

District and Circuit court staff said Thursday the third floor of the courthouse can become crowded when both District and Circuit courts are in session; inmates, witnesses and suspects mix with the general public in the hall outside the courtroom.

The courthouse has only one courtroom. When both courts are in session, District Court gets the courtroom and Circuit Court must be held in the jury room next door.

The jail in the basement is not being used. If voters approve the 1 percent tax for the courthouse, the county plans to take out the jail and build Circuit Court its own courtroom in the basement, improving security and convenience.

Shockley said the only ADA access the building has is through the back from the alley, where not much parking is available. A wheelchair-bound person would have to park in the alley and enter the courthouse basement, where a small maze of walls and doorways must be navigated to get to the elevator.

“It’s not real handy,” Shockley said.

Shockley said the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, information technology network support and climate control systems all need updating. He said air conditioning is provided by individual units in the offices that can be seen coming out the side of the building. He said the county would like to install one HVAC system for the entire courthouse to have greater efficiency. He added the building’s plumbing is 100 years old, and the wiring is outdated, not suitable for technologies the county currently uses.

Shockley said one option would have been to build an entirely new courthouse, so the county had a structural engineer evaluate its courthouse before spending any money.

“They were very impressed with the quality of the building … for its age, he was impressed with its quality and condition,” Shockley said. 

However, he said, once the county looked at everything the courthouse needs, it became apparent that to fix it all at once would be a $12 million undertaking.

“The number got too big for our comfort, so we decided to just do the courtrooms and ADA,” Shockley said.

Shockley said $12 million was too much to ask of county voters; it would take 15-17 years to pay off that amount, according to projections based on previous sales tax collection amounts. He said other, more important issues could easily arise over that length of time that would require the tax, so the county didn’t want to tie up the tax for so long.

Shockley said the county cut back to the two priorities of ADA and security, which lowered the expense to $4.875 million. He said if voters approve all three specific purpose tax proposals on the Aug. 21 ballot — courthouse improvements, a new 4-H building at the fairgrounds and municipal projects — the payoff period is projected to be in the six- to seven-year range.

The county currently collects the specific purpose excise tax to pay for its nursing home, which will be paid off in 2019. The county will cease collecting the tax at that time if voters do not approve the tax again.

The ballot question will ask voters to approve three separate propositions that could be funded with the sales tax: 

ν Platte County’s proposition to remodel its historic courthouse for $4.875 million.

ν Platte County Fair Board’s proposition to renovate the 4-H building at the county fairgrounds for $4.72 million.

ν Municipal projects totaling just over $7 million, including Chugwater’s request for $802,400 to pay for street reconstruction/repair and to buy a multi-use tractor; Glendo’s request for $413,000 to convert the Old Town Shop into a community center; Guernsey’s request for $2.95 million to upgrade its water system, including refurbishing the water tank and pipelines, as well as installing a dedicated water line with chlorination; Hartville’s request for $336,300 to improve the town’s water pipeline, cemetery, firehouse and town shop building, as well as to buy equipment; and a request from Wheatland for slightly more than $2.5 million to upgrade the town’s electrical system, repair wastewater ponds and repair the Black Mountain water tower.

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