Commissioners vote against requested election on courthouse addition

All three Madison County Commissioners voted for a motion to proceed with plans to build a courthouse addition and not to hold a countywide election on the matter after it was requested by a small number of county residents.

One of those concerned citizens, John Claypool, was unable to attend the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday morning but did submit an email to be read into the minutes. In his email, Claypool expressed his frustration about not being properly and fully informed about the courthouse addition and the voters’ involvement in the process.

“I am more firmly convinced than ever it’s a necessity that this go before voters,” Claypool said. “It’s a capital investment of a very sizeable amount. No timeframe or cost of a ballot are more important than the privacy of a voting booth.”

Claypool and a few others brought the commissioners 100 or more signatures of people in the Ennis area who claimed not to know anything about the courthouse addition and asked that it be put to a vote even though many of them told commissioner Dan Happel they think it’s a great project.

The commissioners agreed that the project is a large capital investment, but one that under law they are allowed to make. According to statute, the board of county commissioners has jurisdiction and power to erect, furnish, equip, expand, improve, and maintain a courthouse, jail, health care facility, civic center, youth center, park buildings, museums, recreation centers, and any combination of those buildings and any other public buildings as may be necessary. The courthouse addition would be a public building in which residents of Madison County could attend public meetings, register to vote and visit a number of county offices.

Putting the courthouse addition on the ballot would cost between $7,000-$8,000, according to the clerk and recorder’s office. Approximately 850 registered voters’ signatures are needed to place an item on the ballot of a regularly scheduled election. Otherwise, 1,415 registered voters’ signatures are needed to run special election.

Funds were saved in a capital improvement fund over the past few years and will be used to construct the addition. Madison County residents will not be asked to pay any additional taxes or fees to fund the project. Under statute, capital improvements means improvements, land, and equipment with a useful life of 10 years or more that increase or improve the service capacity of a public facility. Madison County’s budget and finance information is competed and recorded with the state every year, according to Vicki Tilstra, the county’s chief financial officer. She said the information is open to the public and the capital improvement funds have been disclosed as being set aside for the purpose of building the courthouse addition.

The commissioners have travelled around the county twice to attend various public meetings with information about the courthouse addition, but the meetings were often poorly attended.

Commissioner Dave Schulz said he, Happel and Jim Hart have not changed direction or altered their focus and intent. He said he felt it was unfortunate that some people haven’t followed county government.

“We’re trying to take care of all of us county employees and the rest of the county too,” Hart said. “We listened to voters and they didn’t want a $10 million bond for a law and justice center years ago. I appreciate and respect that.”

The commissioners moved on from the idea of building a new detention center and proceeded with the idea of restoring the courthouse solely for court proceedings and moving other county offices back under one roof.

Tom Shaffer with the county facilities and maintenance department said that even if the courthouse addition were to be put to a vote, the majority of the public has no clue what the needs of the county offices are in terms of storage space, office space and more. Sanitarian’s Clerk Donna Gilman said she would love for Claypool and anyone else who questions the courthouse addition to sit in her office in the small Broadway Annex office building, which was originally a house. Gilman’s office is a bedroom under the stairs and right next to the bathroom. She said there are issues with being in a house. At times all the noise and crowdedness makes it hard for her concentrate. And with files spread out in the building it often times takes more work and time to complete a task.

Some county employees like Lana Kober-Atkins are not excited about leaving the historic courthouse, but Kober-Atkins said she understands why the move is needed. She said she does not want to see the commissioners drag their feet on the courthouse addition by putting it up for election or back out at meetings throughout the county.

Patty Davis, a paralegal in the Madison County Attorney’s office, stated that the feeling in her office and others in the courthouse is one of moving forward. Gilman questioned how right it is to make county residents, many of them elderly, walk all over Virginia City trying to find the office they need.

“It’s new to some people but they need to appreciate process we have gone through,” Gilman said.

Happel, who said he is not a naysayer to the plan, stated that he wanted to make sure the commissioners didn’t do something they would ultimately have to justify and couldn’t. Schulz responded to Happel his thought that if the courthouse addition was not formally addressed now it would always be there and it is important to put legitimate finality to the discussion.

The commissioners agreed to put information about the plan back on the county’s website and to advertise the intent and scale of the project in local newspapers.

The Madison County Board of Commissioners meets every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at the Broadway Annex in Virginia City.

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