PI voters to decide millage on new courthouse

ROGERS CITY – Presque Isle County voters will decide on a bond issue millage to build a new courthouse, which county commissioners say is direly needed.

The current courthouse dates from 1883 and has well outlived its useful life, board Vice Chairman Robert Schell said. The county is asking voters to approve a 15-year, $4.11 million bond issue to demolish the oldest part of the building and build a new one. Taxpayers would pay an average 0.53 mills, about $26.50 per year for a house with $50,000 in taxable value. It’s not a huge burden, but some voters aren’t convinced it’s a wise expense.

Aside from its age, the courthouse was built in piecemeal fashion over the years, Schell said. Its wiring, plumbing, heating and cooling systems are all outdated, and the structure itself is starting to show its age. The old coal room below the parking lot is crumbling, the rafters are starting to sag and the roof is riddled with leaks. That’s not to mention space and security issues, among others.

“We have times where there’s AC on in one part of the building and heat on in the other,” he said.

The county has tried to keep the building in good shape, Schell said. Renovating the old courthouse, including bringing the wiring and plumbing up to code, could cost as much as new construction. This factors in the necessity of relocating county offices during construction.

“To go in and try to redo the plumbing, wiring and electrical, you just couldn’t do it and still work in the building,” he said. “You’d have to relocate offices to somewhere else.”

County revenues have declined over the last 10 years, Schell said. Officials formerly believed they could finance new construction without taxpayer help, but a closer review of finances showed this not to be the case. Other options, like reusing the former Rogers City High School, could be equally as expensive.

Whether taxpayers approve the millage or not, the building will have to be replaced sooner or later, Schell said.

“It just needs a lot, a lot of work,” he said. “It’s served its purpose. It’s a good old building.”

Lifelong Hawks resident Harold Claus, known to friends as “Butch,” said he’s willing to believe the county needs a new courthouse. But he questions what happened to a large reserve the county formerly had set aside to build one. The county supposedly had about $1 million on hand to help finance the construction. Now, county officials are asking taxpayers to foot the bill.

“That’s what I don’t understand, where’s the million dollars?” he said. “If you had it 10 or 12 years ago, it should’ve been even more by now.”

Claus isn’t accusing anyone of stealing the money, he said, and he doesn’t want to criticize county officials too harshly. At the same time, he’s concerned the county’s finances need a closer looking-over.

Until Claus gets an answer, he’s unwilling to vote for the millage, he said.

“I’m sure it got used somewhere, but you’d think somebody would know,” he said.

Commissioner Kris Sorgenfrei has been an ardent supporter of building a new courthouse for some time. Voters have never approved a bond issue to repair or replace the building, she said, and she’s trying to inform them on why one is needed ahead of the Nov. 5 election.

As she prepared for a town hall-style meeting in Millersburg, Sorgenfrei said part of the county’s courthouse construction funds were spent on the Nowicki Building. The former sausage shop now houses county offices. She tried to answer Claus’ questions at a previous meeting, but wasn’t sure why it appeared the county had the money when it apparently did not.

“We were careless in saying we had something when we really didn’t have it,” she said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.