The White County Budget and Finance Committee indefinitely tabled the proposed courts building project this week, even after County Judge Michael Lincoln dropped the asking price to $17.5 million.
The committee voted 3-2 Tuesday night to table the proposal instead of moving it forward to the full Quorum Court. The justices of the peace voting to table it were Bobby Burns of Beebe, Mike Cleveland of Searcy and Allen King of Pangburn.
County Treasurer Janet Hibbitts said the decision means the proposal is sidelined until someone who voted to table it makes the decision to bring it back. White County Judge-elect Lisa Brown said that is her understanding, too, that “only a JP who voted to table can bring it back up,” but she was waiting for clarification.
Brown said she believes the project eventually “will be revisited … just not sure when.”
The cost of the project had ballooned to $26 million with contingencies due to increases in size and construction costs, but the new amount discussed Tuesday involved a 25 percent reduction in the footprint of the facility, which would be built on land already roped off on Benton Street, not far from the White County Law Enforcement Center.
A reduction in square footage from 33,900 and the removal of a Quorum Court building from the design plan led to the amount coming down to $17.5 million, according to Hibbitts. A 25 percent reduction in square footage would be 8,475, leaving 25,425, but Brown said they did not come up with an exact square footage reduction.
Lincoln said the county has been talking about the need for a new court facility since 2016. He mentioned the American With Disabilities Act, security, parking and the overall functioning of the circuit court facility as reasons. Many times, Lincoln said, residents have been confused as to what court building to be in since there are three different locations.
“This is not something that we’ve come up with so we can spend ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] money like it’s being portrayed on Facebook,” he said. “This is a very calculated process that we have gone through. We have had meeting after meeting after meeting over this six year period concerning this facility.”
Lincoln referenced comments being made on social media “by people who don’t have a clue as to what they are talking about. There was no pandemic in 2016. There was no ARPA money in 2016. This was a project that we would consider undertaking using county [funding] just like we have every other project that we have encountered.”
Lincoln recapped the cost of the building. He said going into the last joint budget committee meeting, the cost of the building itself was $20.989 million with a $3 million contingency, $1.2 million for furnishings and $760,000 for technology for the building for a total of $26 million.
“We have not had one vote to spend one dime toward building this building other than the architectural fees and a few other things that we had to do,” he said.
Lincoln said he met with Hibbitts last week, went back to the drawing board and gave her a new plan, “and she smiled.”
Lincoln said he called architect Barry Hoffmann and Adam Hart of Hart Construction and said that the county could not afford to build a $26 million building. He said he instructed Hoffmann to reduce the building by 25 percent, which saves $4.6 million. He said he asked Hibbitts if the county could afford the reduced amount and she said, “Yes, sir.”
The initial estimated cost of the project in July 2020, according to Hoffmann, was $4.2-$5.3 million for a 21,345-square foot building. It increased to $7-$8 million for a 31,755-square foot facility in March 2021, then $9.5-$11 million for that same size in August 2021. In February, the square footage was 33,843 and the price tag was estimated at $10.1-$11.8 million. Then in July, the cost went to $20.9 million for 33,900 square feet.
To fund the project, Lincoln said the county has the opportunity to use $10 million in ARPA money plus another $1.3-$1.4 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds and perhaps $4 million that is in the county’s reserve fund. He said Tuesday that there is also possibly another $1 million in ARPA money that may be able to be used for heating and cooling and possibly some security things for the new building.
In regard to the reserve fund, Lincoln mentioned the county could maybe spend $2 million on the courts building and the other $2 million for contingencies. He said the parking lot is an expense for the project as well.
Justice Joel Pritchett of Searcy brought up the atrium part of the proposed facility and taking the third floor and putting it where the Quorum Court building would have been located.
Hoffmann said that can be looked at “but it becomes expensive to design another building.” He said it would probably take $40,000 to $70,000 to step back in construction to produce plans.
The atrium and the three floors have been in the plans since October 2020, Hoffmann added. Pritchett said he is embarrassed by the atrium.
Hoffmann has called the new courts building a 150-year building. He said those who consulted on its design include Arkansas Supreme Court Police Chief Pete Hollingsworth, White County Sheriff Phillip Miller, White County Circuit Judges, Craig Hannah, Mark Pate and Daniel Brock, the White County Bar Association, the Quorum Court and the county committees.