During a planning workshop this week, county officials decided to pay for a portion of the courthouse with unrestricted reserve funds — money that has been set aside for a rainy day or in the event of a county-wide emergency such as a hurricane.
Approximately $10 million to $15 million would go to the courthouse, according to board chairman Bob Cole. That would leave approximately $20 million of reserve money for the county to have for an emergency.
Cole, who was a proponent of a half-cent sales tax to fund construction of the courthouse, said it’s better that the board does not have to make a request of county voters.
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“We’ve known for quite some time how important this was going to be and we’ve been diligent about keeping money, and we’ve been through Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Dennis and we expressed that we wanted to put money in reserve,” Cole said. “I feel confident with the board that we don’t have to go back for another half-cent sales tax.”
Santa Rosa voters in August 2016 defeated a sales tax measure to fund a new courthouse. That sales tax defeat was the fourth such loss in 14 years for a new building. Sales tax measures for a courthouse also failed in 2002, 2006 and 2014.
Last summer, commissioners decided in a 3-2 vote to build the courthouse on approximately 19 acres on Avalon Boulevard just outside of Milton city limits. The county purchased the land from JDL of Santa Rosa LLC for $850,000.
Cole said Jayne Bell, the county budget director, and other county staff showed the board the county will have enough money over the next few years to make the annual payment on any debt.
Cole said the county is working with the plan that it can build a courthouse for approximately $35 million to $40 million. Aside from the $10 million to $15 million in unrestricted funds, the county would also take out a 20-year bond for the rest, leaving it with a 2.5 percent interest rate that would equal to about $1.8 million a year.
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“We felt like it was more prudent to take a portion of unrestricted reserves and move forward with a design-build concept,” Commissioner Don Salter said. “What was enlightening to see was all five commissioners agree to move forward with a concept of a courthouse.”
Previous board discussions on how to fund the courthouse were tied to a half-cent sales tax for a judicial center package that would also fund expansion of the county jail that is nearing capacity.
Salter said the board has asked Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson for a long-range plan on his department’s capital needs for the next three years, and once commissioners have that information, they’ll have a better idea on how to address the jail expansion issue.
Cole said Sheriff Johnson indicated to the board that with other steps and measures, he could control the overcrowding for about 12 to 18 months.
The next step for the courthouse is for county staff to gather more information on the building, including the new county administrator, Dan Schebler, meeting with representatives in Okaloosa County where a new courthouse is under construction.
“I’m very happy we could move this forward and it’s long overdue,” Cole said. “I’m proud to be chairman of the board that decided this.”
County commissioners find way to build new courthouse without creating new tax
Santa Rosa County commissioners may have found a way to build their new courthouse without a new tax or a voter referendum.
The board unanimously agreed to take $20 million from their reserves and borrow up to $30 million.
The county could put out the call for design-build proposals by the end of the year.