BENTON — In an overwhelming majority, Franklin County voters declined a sales tax increase that would have allowed the county to replace its aging courthouse.
Franklin County Board chair Randall Crocker was disappointed.
"I feel like we gave it a good shot," Crocker said of his and fellow board members' efforts to raise awareness about the need for the tax. He said the voters must not have been ready to increase taxes.
Crocker had said all along that mitigation for the myriad problems at the courthouse was not really an option. However, now that replacing the courthouse is not an option, Crocker said the county may be able to move some of the functions of the courthouse into the Campbell building across the square, which is currently being renovated. However, he said this is not a long-term solution.
It was a busy first quarter for the Franklin County Board as several of the members traveled through each town in the county, big or small, to try to sell the “power of the penny.” They made presentations to encourage support for the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase.
Crocker said the courthouse is, at this point, beyond repairing. The limestone foundation is crumbling, the electrical system and heating system are dated, and its capacity for technology is limited given that the building was constructed nearly 150 years ago. Crocker also said the building does not currently comply with many mandates of modern courthouses, including many parts of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Crocker said construction for the new courthouse was estimated to cost $20 million. The tax was estimated to have generated $2.2 million a year.
Crocker said he knew raising taxes was not a popular idea, but said the burden of this tax would be shared by visitors pulling off the interstate — it would not have fallen solely on the shoulders of Franklin County residents.
Local business owners gathered in West Frankfort to express concern over the tax increase. Sloan Brown, president of E.R. Brown Furniture, said he has lost sales in the past because of sales tax differences from other counties, and said this increase could only have made this worse.
During its January meeting, the board approved putting the tax on the April ballot. The tax had a sunset clause, meaning it would have lasted no more than 20 years. The increase would not have included groceries, titled vehicles or medicines.
This was not the first time a tax increase was proposed to help the courthouse. A .25 percent tax increase was proposed in 2015 to help pay for renovations but failed.