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County Council OKs plan to build new courthouse

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By Jenny Hartley

Lancaster County voters will have a choice – sort of - in how the county pays for a new courthouse.

County Council met Wednesday to discuss an installment-purchase plan to pay for a new courthouse.

The Lancaster County School District used an installment-purchase plan a few years ago to build the new Indian Land High School and pay for renovations at other county schools. It involves the sale of bonds, which are then paid back by taxes.

Before fire damaged the historic Lancaster County Courthouse on Aug. 4, county officials were already moving forward with a bond referendum to build a new $33 million courthouse. While the 180-year-old existing courthouse has great historic value, it was declared inadequate in space and security for holding court.

Council decided Wednesday to move forward with an installment- purchase plan.

With this plan, the bonds sold to pay for the new courthouse would be paid back over 20 years through an increase in property taxes.

The referendum will still be held Nov. 4 during the general election. The ballot question will still ask voters if they want an extra 1 percent sales tax to pay for construction of the courthouse. The extra sales tax would be collected for seven years or possibly a shorter time, until the bonds to build the courthouse are paid off.

A "no" vote would mean, by default, that the bonds would be paid back over 20 years in property taxes.

Money to build a new courthouse would be available more quickly through an installment-purchase plan. But it would also mean a higher interest rate on funds, totaling an extra $1.5 million to build.

County officials hope to have the plans for a new building and a contractor chosen by Thanksgiving, said County Attorney Fran Heizer.

"There is no question," Councilman Bryan Vaughn said.

"We've got to have a facility and $1.5 million is a lot of money. But we don't know what the cost of construction will be next year. It could go up. I think it's the responsibility of this council to step up and make the tough decision. I think we owe it to the folks in the court system. I think we owe it to the community."

Councilman Fred Thomas said if the sales tax option were approved, the bonds could be paid back more quickly than seven years.

The new Wal-Mart in Indian Land alone is projected to generate $750,000 to $1 million each year in sales tax for the county. It's expected to open in 2010.

Heizer said what the tax is projected to collect in seven years, about $44 million, is a conservative figure.

"We are confident these are very conservative numbers. They're realistic numbers," she said.

Councilman Larry Honeycutt said it will likely take at least two years to complete construction on a new courthouse.

During that time, the county will have to pay to rent temporary facilities and spend money for extra security.

"I hate that it will cost an extra $1.5 million, but we've got to bite the bullet," Honeycutt said.

"We could save $1.5 million in construction cost increases," County Administrator Steve Willis said. "It's a wash."

Joe Ramsey, who served on the county's capital project sales tax commission, which came up with the ballot question, said he supports the referendum, but not the installment-purchase plan. He said the financing option will add extra costs.

"Let the voters decide in November if they want to fund the courthouse with sales tax before committing the county to this very expensive financing proposal," Ramsey told council.

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or (803) 283-1151