Courthouse: A primer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 13, 1999

Although a referendum remains uncertain, public opinion about the Freeborn County Courthouse proposal is important to county commissioners, said Gene Smith, county administrator.

Saturday, November 13, 1999

Although a referendum remains uncertain, public opinion about the Freeborn County Courthouse proposal is important to county commissioners, said Gene Smith, county administrator. Getting the information out is the first step.

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Getting started

&uot;In the scenario that was developed, there will be a number of public meetings,&uot; said Smith. The dates will be set soon by the county board. &uot;The public’s role in all of this will be to think about the proposal, ask questions and offer their opinion.&uot;

Board members will attend town meetings in their district to hear what their constituents have to say about the proposed plan.

The advisory committee that worked with architects to develop the plan will also be at the meetings to answer questions. The committee originally consisted of five private citizens from each of the five districts. After a year and a half, the committee proposed to the board what it saw as the best option, the 10th out of 14 designs.

&uot;That’s how option 10 was developed. It wasn’t put forth by county staff or the county board. It was developed by 25 private citizens,&uot; Smith said.

In addition to the advisory committee, two architects from BKPV & Associates, the Minneapolis firm that designed the plans, will also be at each of the town meetings to explain the project to the public.

But how will the process work? Here’s a look.


A financial plan will also be presented at the meetings. There are several strategies the board is considering.

According to Smith, there is $4 million in reserves already on hand that the board can use for the courthouse. The board can also decide to sell bonds. Or a combination of different financial strategies can be used.

&uot;The bottom line is that we have a project with an estimated cost of $12 million. The board will choose the strategy that pays that cost at the most responsible impact to the taxpayers,&uot; Smith said.

Although the board will present a financial strategy that will cost the least to taxpayers, the financial strategy, like the building proposal, is not set in stone.

Both the building proposal and financial strategy will be outlined in a newsletter that will be sent to residents of Freeborn County.

Will there be a referendum?


Several things could happen. First, the county board is not required to hold a referendum if it pays for the courthouse renovations through bonding. Second, citizens could hold a reverse referendum. Third, county commissioners could decide to hold a referendum anyway, and let citizens decide.

There are two types of referendums available.

The regular type of voter referendum is for the public to decide something for the first time; for example, the school district had to first hold a public referendum vote in order to raise taxes and build a new high school.

A regular referendum is possible, if the board decides to do so, said Commissioner Bob Berthelsen Saturday. But, a referendum is not required if the board uses bonding to pay for the courthouse.

By contrast, a reverse referendum can be used by the public to overturn an existing decision. Even if the board decides not to hold a referendum, voters could decide to hold a reverse referendum on their own.

A reverse referendum can be called when a fixed percentage of the people who voted in the last election sign a petition. At last week’s meeting, Commissioner Dan Belshan said 5 percent was needed.

Once the petition is signed and presented to the board, the public has an opportunity to vote on the issue. People can vote in favor of the board’s existing decision on the given issue, or they can overturn it.

&uot;Initially, it’s (a reverse referendum) like a referendum, except that it’s in reaction to something,&uot; Smith said.

The plan

Berthelsen said the goal right now is simply to involve the public. So far, the public has only bits and pieces, he said, not all the details.

&uot;What we’ll do is still hard to say. I’m really looking forward to getting all of the information out to the public.

&uot;I don’t think we are ready to say ‘this is the plan, accept it, or reject it.’ Sometime we refer to it as a plan, sometimes as an option. What it is is information; that has to go to the public so they can react to it.

&uot;Then when they have all the information and they can make an educated decision or educated suggestion, we will react to that,&uot; Berthelsen said.

The advisory committee’s proposal carries an $11.9 million price tag and is the result of over a year of studies, interviews and designs.

The proposed plan calls for the demolition of the 1954 building. The 1888 building will undergo minor restorations, and a new building will be added on to accommodate offices and two court rooms. A small parking lot will be constructed where the 1954 building stands, with additional parking across the street on Newton Avenue.

A space utilization study showed the 1954 building was only 55 percent efficient.

Also, the committee proposes the reconstruction of a clock tower and turrets to maintain the historic look of the 1888 building. The building would serve mainly as a public meeting place.

The new building will house the public offices, with one corridor for the public and a separate corridor for staff.

The board will further discuss the courthouse project at its meeting Tuesday, Nov. 16.