Give voters information before

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By The Staff

The issue has changed. Before the Aug. 4 arson that destroyed the top floor of the historic Lancaster County Courthouse, county leaders were pushing for a November referendum in which residents would vote on a 1-cent local sales tax that would pay for the construction of a new courthouse facility.

The new facility would be bigger and better, consolidating the county’s criminal and family court offices into one building, alleviating security issues and allowing the criminal justice system to work more efficiently in the county.

The need for a 21st century courthouse was never in doubt. The old one was antiquated and better suited for use as a museum. The county outgrew it years ago.

But selling the penny sales tax to voters this year didn’t look promising because of the rocky economic climate, defined largely by high fuel costs and a high local unemployment rate.

That’s why we asked that county leaders hold off on the sales tax referendum a few months ago. We simply didn’t think the county would be able to sell it this year.

Even after the courthouse fire, the sales tax referendum didn’t look like a sure thing. But last week, the prospects of the county selling the referendum got much better.

County Council drastically reframed the issue by making a bold move.

Its members decided a new courthouse will be built, period.

Voters will still have a choice, just a different one – to pay for it with the penny sales tax or with property taxes.

Voters will have their say on the sales tax in November. If they reject it, they are, by default, saying they’d rather pay for the new courthouse with increased tax millage.

County Council made a tough decision by saying we must build a courthouse now. We respect our officials for making this call.

But before the referendum, officials need to fully explain both options.

We need to know how much the new courthouse is going to cost – $33 million as we heard recently, $35 million as we were hearing before, or whatever it will be.

We also need to see plans for the new courthouse and where officials think it will built.

We want as much information about the differences between Plan A (building the courthouse with sales tax revenues) and Plan B (building the courthouse with tax millage).

Last week, county officials, who still appear to favor Plan A, said a new sales tax would “conservatively” generate $44 million in tax revenue over seven years.

The new Wal-Mart, expected to open in Indian Land in 2010, could alone generate $1 million in sales tax revenues for the county, officials said.

County officials need to explain how these numbers were derived and give the public the opportunity to evaluate the credibility of these projections.

We also need to know more about Plan B.

With this plan, we’ve been told a new courthouse will be built with an installment-purchase plan, and property owners would pay for the building over a 20-year period. The courthouse could probably get built quicker this way, officials say. But what we haven’t been told is how much in extra taxes it will cost taxpayers each year.

Now that the county is biting the bullet and moving forward on a new courthouse, it’s important that voters have all the information they need to make an informed decision in November. County officials owe it to residents to provide them with this information.