Hutchinson County Voters Set To Decide Courthouse Matter

OLIVET — For months, the Hutchinson County Commission has discussed the location for a new courthouse.

Now, the county’s voters will decide whether to build one at all.

Auditor Diane Murtha confirmed Monday that an April 10 special election will decide the fate of the proposed courthouse. Petitions containing enough valid signatures were submitted to her office, seeking a vote on the new facility, she told the Press & Dakotan.

“The petitions were turned in Friday, and they had enough (valid) signatures. They needed something like 246 signatures,” she said. “This will be a county-wide election. It’ll be a referendum on the commissioners’ resolution to construct a new building.”

The special election will give voters the final decision on a new courthouse, Murtha said. However, the opportunity will come with a price tag, she said.

“People have got to realize this is a county-wide election, so this is going to cost a much as (each of) the primary and general elections,” she said. “In 2016, those elections cost (the county) a combined $73,000. And I have no budget for this special election in April.”

The April 10 date would meet the required time frame for holding the election under state law, Murtha said. The county referendum can be held in conjunction with any city and school elections that day, she added.

The commissioners will act on the courthouse petitions and set a special election date at their next regular meeting Tuesday.

Given the election timetable, the referendum must be held as a special election, Murtha said.

“We can’t stretch this out until the June primary election,” she said.

The commission will have a special meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 in the courthouse. The meeting will feature a presentation on the proposed project, and the public can take tours of the courthouse.

The commissioners are planning to tape the presentation for later showing on local television access channels in Parkston, Tripp, Menno and Freeman, Friesen said.

Hutchinson County voters will decide whether to replace the 1881 courthouse, the oldest one still used in South Dakota. The central section contains two stories, while the wings are one story.

The proposed 22,000-square-foot building will be one level.

The commissioners pursued a new courthouse, with a projected $4.5 million cost, compared to remodeling the current structure for an estimated $3.5 million.

In anticipation of a new courthouse, the commissioners set up a construction fund which has accumulated $2.7 million. The remaining amount would be borrowed to cover costs.

However, the courthouse proposal has run into opposition in recent weeks.

A group of Olivet residents raised concerns about the proposed cost, location and necessity of a new courthouse. They questioned both the $4.5 million and $3.5 million estimates from the construction manager at risk. The bids could have come in differently.

At its Feb. 6 regular meeting, the Hutchinson County commissioners and other county officials fielded questions from Olivet resident Josh Hora. He said he preferred an opt-out or continued saving for a courthouse rather than borrowing money.

“The government should never have to pay interest,” he said.

In addition, Hora told the commissioners that opponents were seeking to put the proposed courthouse on the ballot.

The commissioners and Murtha said they had heard about circulation of a petition in different parts of Hutchinson County, from convenience stores to a basketball game. However, they don’t know what the petition said, what it sought or how many people were signing it.

The commissioners said they saw themselves as good stewards. They noted they were building a courthouse to meet needs for decades rather than patch up an old courthouse.

Commissioner Steve Friesen told the Press & Dakotan that the delay because of the election will prove costly.

“This (project) will now be next year, and then it will be another half-million dollars,” he said.

The referendum only asks whether the courthouse should be built, Friesen said. If the commissioners’ decision is overturned, the voters aren’t giving any direction on what they want, he said.

“Where do we go from there?” Friesen asked.

County officials said they were pursuing a new courthouse because of the current facility’s deterioration. They noted mold, water damage, cracks and other structural deficiencies.

In addition, they pointed to a lack of handicapped accessibility, inadequate courtroom space, a need for greater security measures, and inadequate wiring to handle computers and other technology.

The courtroom is located on the second floor. People unable to climb the stairs can ride two different chair lifts to reach the upper level.

Finding a suitable location for a new courthouse has run into issues in recent months. The commissioners have sought an alternative site for a new courthouse rather than demolishing and rebuilding on the current site. Constructing on the current site would force relocation of county offices and court proceedings for up to 18 months.

At first, Hutchinson County and the Town of Olivet had each passed a resolution for an exchange of land. The current courthouse site would have been swapped for the Olivet ballfield two blocks to the east.

The proposal was blocked, at least temporarily, by a petition signed by 10 Olivet residents referring the town board’s resolution. In turn, the Hutchinson County commissioners rescinded their resolution. The Olivet town board planned to do the same thing at Monday night’s special meeting.

Then, the commissioners looked at purchasing property in Block 2 of Olivet, but they saw the asking prices as too high. Most recently, the commissioners were pursuing the purchase of private property in Block 1 of Olivet.

Then came last Friday’s petition, putting the entire process on hold.

Friesen said misinformation has surrounded the proposed courthouse from the beginning.

“The opponents keep saying that this (project) will raise taxes, but that’s not true,” he said. “The county hasn’t raised its taxes for the past five or six years.”

Even if voters reject a new courthouse, the problems with the current building won’t go away, Friesen said.

“The state has asked for a new courtroom, and there’s no way of adding to the present courthouse and making it look decent without a lot of headaches,” he said.

“We don’t want to just throw something together. And we have to take care of things like mold and asbestos.”

Friesen said he believes a new courthouse remains the right way to go.

“We’ll see what the people have to say, but I feel very comfortable with what we’ve done,” he said. “I believe we’re on the right path.”

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