WEST FRANKFORT — The Franklin County board has been on the road the last several weeks, trying to get the word out about a proposed tax referendum on April’s ballot.
Trying to reach almost every community in the county, the board has been giving presentations on why voters should cast a ballot to temporarily increase Franklin County’s sales tax by 1 percent.
Board Chairman Randall Crocker said the measure would last not more than 20 years, ending as soon as the last payment on the new courthouse was made, or when the construction fund had enough to pay off the debt. He also said money gained from it could only be used to fund construction. The increase will not include groceries, titled vehicles or medicines.
The 140-year-old courthouse is deficient in more than one way. The foundation is crumbling, the retrofitted digital infrastructure is a constant struggle — and those are just the structural problems. It also meets little to none of the required minimums for a county courthouse. There are not separate entrances for the accused and victims, there is not a holding cell for the accused awaiting court, and the building is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
All of this pointed Crocker and the board to building a new facility, particularly after a ballot measure that would have increased sales tax by .25 percent to repair and mitigate the building’s problems failed in 2015.
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During Thursday’s West Frankfort presentation — titled The Power of the Penny — Crocker said he believes the ballot measure failed in 2015 because voters did not want the county throwing, “good money after bad.”
Recently elected Franklin County Circuit Clerk Jim Muir is behind the new measure. Even as a fiscal conservative, Muir said he thinks this tax is worth it.
“When the need is so great, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Muir said.
In a brief presentation during Thursday’s talk, Muir said he does not believe the tax will be felt by most consumers. He said he and his wife went out for pizza and when he got his bill, he realized with the new tax his check would have only gone up by 25 cents.
Crocker said this plan is attractive, at least in one sense, because not all of the burden will fall on residents of the county, as a property tax increase would. Instead, some of it will fall on people who venture off the interstate and visit the county.
Of the roughly 15 people in attendance Thursday, questions remained civil, though not all were supportive of the idea.
Sloan Brown, President of E.R. Brown Furniture, came to voice his concerns about the impacts such an increase would have on local businesses. In a later interview with the newspaper, Brown said he knows firsthand that even just $50 to $60 can make or break a sale. He can think of three instances specifically that this has happened, he said.
“We do everything we can certainly to be competitive,” Brown said, adding that an increased sales tax may just make his job harder.
Brown admitted, though, that the need is there, and he appreciated what the board is doing to help find a solution. He’s just not sure this tax is the right one.
“I applaud the county board because they are doing everything they can to take care of this matter,” Brown said.
Brown has not been the only dissenting voice. Robert Pierce, the recently elected board member, and party minority, has been against it from the outset. Philosophically, Pierce is not a fan of raising taxes.
“I am of the philosophy that less government, more free enterprise is better,” Pierce said. He said while the board has done a decent job explaining the need, he just does not think they should “go to the well” to find a solution.
“It is not a good financial decision, if in fact you are looking to prosper, is to go borrow more money to build a different house on a different piece of property that better fit your needs,” Pierce said, comparing the situation to running a household. “That doesn’t end well for anybody.”
Pierce did acknowledge there are some differences in government. But he said the best way to get control over finances is the divest and control expenses.
Crocker doesn’t understand that reasoning.
“I have a hard time understanding him sometimes,” Crocker admitted. He said a county would never be able to pay out from excess funds.
“I don’t think we can wait around until the money is in the bank,”Crocker said of building the new courthouse. “It’s went way past that.”
Pierce admitted the need is there. Something has to happen with the courthouse, he’s just not sure replacing it is what is needed.
“You can mitigate the legal factors much cheaper,” Pierce said. He said he believes in updating and repairing the existing facility to make the building compliant with state and federal codes. To him, the tax increase is another “tax and spend,” measure.
“I guess I could agree with that if we was trying to do something frivolous but I don’t think this is frivolous endeavor,” Crocker said.
Ultimately, the voters will decide April 4 and Pierce said if it is their will, he won’t stand in the way of progress.
“I will put my full weight of help and care into making sure it’s a great and successful project,” he said.
Brown also said he and his business will endure.
“It’s another sacrifice we’ll have to make,” he said.