Fort Mill Times

Voters won't have say on new courthouse

The Lancaster County Council voted at a special meeting last week to use an installment purchase plan to pay for a new courthouse.

Officials estimate the courthouse will cost $33 million, but that could change if the plan is scaled down.

The bonds would be paid off over 20 years through an increase in property taxes unless voters decide differently during a Nov. referendum. An IPP is similar to a mortgage and doesn't require the public's consent. Voters will get to decide, however, how the debt is repaid.

Originally, the county planned to give voters a choice whether to build a new courthouse with a capital project sales tax or not build one at all. But since an Aug. 4 fire at the courthouse, the county council has said that a new courthouse must be built. Officials have classified that fire as arson and a reward for information leading to suspects and a conviction has been offered.

Voters will still have a choice to make on the November ballot, County Administrator Steve Willis said. Voters can choose to pay off the bonds from the IPP by using a capital project sales tax, which is a one cent sales tax increase.

"A 'no' vote is to pay for it with increased property taxes," Willis said. "A 'yes' vote is to pay for it with the sales tax."

The capital project sales tax would pay off the IPP bonds in seven years or less. If voters reject the sales tax increase, the bonds would be paid off over 20 years.

"They don't have a choice whether to build it anymore, but they have a choice in how to fund it," said Bryan Vaughn, Indian Land's representative on the county council.

IPP bonds - used in recent years by the Fort Mill and Lancaster County school districts to build a new schools - carry a higher interest rate than traditional bonds. However, Willis said he expects much of that increase will be mitigated by the county's savings in construction costs.

Construction costs are rising approximately 3 percent annually, Willis said, so building the courthouse more than a year earlier than anticipated could save the county nearly $1.5 million.

Vaughn said he hopes the courthouse will be ready for construction by the end of the year.

According to Vaughn, the county council will evaluate the courthouse design and possibly trim some costs from the project. Vaughn said he'd like to see the courthouse cost between $20 million and $22 million.

"I think there are ways we can get the cost down," Vaughn said. "So, because we're going to go ahead and build it doesn't mean we'll spend $33 million on it."

Since the courthouse fire, and another that same week at the solicitor's office, employees in both offices are using the basement of the county office complex. Court is being held at the Municipal Justice Center.

Several options for temporary facilities are being explored, Willis said, including a building owned by the City of Lancaster. He said he hopes to have a recommendation for the council at the Aug. 25 meeting.