Court­house re­view set

Pre­sen­ta­tion planned for new JPs Quo­rum Court changes

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - TOM SISSOM

BEN­TONVILLE — Ben­ton County’s jus­tices of the peace will re­sume dis­cus­sion of a county courts build­ing at a spe­cial meet­ing tonight.

Joel Jones, jus­tice of the peace and chair­man of the Pub­lic Safety Com­mit­tee, said he’ll have an hour­long pre­sen­ta­tion on the project for the seven new jus­tices of the peace who be­gan serv­ing their terms in Jan­uary.

The Com­mit­tee of the Whole meet­ing will be­gin at 6 p.m. in the Quo­rum Court­room at the County Ad­min­is­tra­tion Build­ing.

“I don’t think we’re back at square zero,” Jones said. “I know that some of the new JPs have been at­tend­ing some of the meet­ings and try­ing to keep up. Then we had the tour of the court­house af­ter the last Com­mit­tee of the Whole meet­ing. I think the Ben­ton County’s Quo­rum Court has seven new mem­bers this year among the 15 jus­tices of the peace. Since 2000, the Quo­rum Court has had five new jus­tices of the peace on four oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing 2013 when the body ex­panded from 13 mem­bers to 15 as a re­sult of the 2010 cen­sus.

judges did a good job show­ing the need. That’s step one. If that didn’t ce­ment that in ev­ery­body’s minds, maybe Tues­day night will.”

County of­fi­cials have dis­cussed plans for a build­ing to house cir­cuit courts and re­lated of­fices for sev­eral years. The county’s six cir­cuit courts are spread among four lo­ca­tions. Three are housed in the county court­house built in 1928. Other sites in­clude two other build­ings in the down­town Ben­tonville area and at the Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice fa­cil­ity on Melissa Drive.

An ini­tial study fin­ished in Jan­uary 2014 iden­ti­fied three sites: two down­town and one on South­west 14th Street near the jail.

A sec­ond study com­pleted last year by the county’s con­sul­tants — Perkowitz. Ruth, Cromwell and Dew­berry — pre­sented six build­ing op­tions, with two op­tions on South­west 14th Street, one for prop­erty be­hind the court­house and three op­tions for prop­erty on North­east Sec­ond Street, just off the down­town square.

One of the con­cepts for South­west 14th Street was ranked high­est by the con­sul­tants, with one of the North­east Sec­ond Street op­tions close be­hind. The Op­tion 1 plan on South­west 14th Street will cost about $37.8 mil­lion. The Op­tion 4 pro­gram on North­east Sec­ond Street will cost of $ 34.5 mil­lion, with about $11 mil­lion in in­cen­tives of­fered by Wal­ton fam­ily in­ter­ests fac­tored in.

Wal­ton fam­ily in­ter­ests have sup­ported plans to keep the court and re­lated of­fices down­town. The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion made a $2.8 mil­lion grant avail­able to ren­o­vate the court­house and to buy land on North­east Sec­ond Street. The Wal­tons also have in­di­cated they’ll build a park­ing garage on North­east B Street, near the down­town sites, and make space avail­able for county and courts-re­lated park­ing if the courts stay down­town.

County Judge Barry Moehring hopes the tour and spe­cial meet­ing on the courts project can get the county mov­ing on the project.

“I’m hop­ing to come out of that meet­ing with a gauge of how quickly we can move for­ward,” Moehring said. “You have to give the new JPs time to get set­tled in if they want it. There’s no ac­tion items on the agenda.”

Barney Hayes, who was sworn in as jus­tice of the peace on Feb. 16, said he wel­comes the brief­ing.

“I’ve kept up with it, but when you’ve ac­tively in­volved in a project you know more about it,” Hayes said. “There’s prob­a­bly things I don’t know and it will be good to get up to speed.”

Bob Bland, an­other new jus­tice of the peace, has at­tended meet­ings, in­clud­ing many about the courts project, for most of 2016. Bland has toured the build­ings af­ter hours on two oc­ca­sions, but he re­cently vis­ited the court­house dur­ing a busy day and said that re­in­forced the need for a courts fa­cil­ity in his mind.

“It’s one thing to see it af­ter hours,” Bland said. “But to go there dur­ing a court day and see the over­crowd­ing and what looks like confusion and dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion, even though they’re or­ga­nized as best they can, it’s shock­ing. It’s re­ally bad and we need to get it done.”

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