Nearly every county seat in Indiana could benefit from a bill promoting historic courthouse renovation and maintenance projects.
Only problem is, when lawmakers passed the legislation through the Senate they stripped out the money for it.
Senate Bill 474 proposed to create a program through which counties with courthouses on the National Historic Register – that’s all but eight of Indiana’s 92 – could receive low-interest loans for preservation or restoration. The bill passed the Senate without a vote against it after the $2 million to fund the loans was axed in a Senate committee.
“The rotating funds portion has been taken out,” said a disappointed Franklin Circuit Judge J. Steven Cox, who hopes lawmakers in the House Ways and Means Committee hear the bill and put the money back in.
Cox was a member of the Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission appointed in 2008 by Gov. Mitch Daniels to advise county officials on preserving the state’s historic courthouses. The panel led by then-Chief Justice Randall Shepard undertook extensive surveys of county officials, judges and those entrusted with the care of the buildings.
It also came up with a list of proposals for lawmakers, including the revolving loan fund.
“One of the things we found in the survey was maybe 25 percent or so had not had major renovations in quite some time,” said Jim Glass, who retired in December as director of the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology at the Department of Natural Resources.
“That would suggest some counties have major work to be done,” said Glass, who was an ex-officio member of the courthouse preservation commission.
The proposal introduced by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, would have appropriated $2 million from the general fund to establish low-interest matching loans that counties could borrow for restoration projects and repay with county economic development income tax receipts or revenue from county adjusted gross income tax.
While the loan program is currently out of the bill, Glass said the bill does identify courthouse preservation or restoration as economic development projects that qualify for funding through economic development tax receipts.
“This is another tool in the toolkit,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, House sponsor for the bill.
Wells County Commissioner Kevin Woodward wishes the revolving loan tool had remained in the bill, and he hopes the proposal might resurface. Woodward was a member of the courthouse panel and knows firsthand the problems smaller counties face with upkeep of structures built in an era when the majesty of public buildings was a matter of competition across county lines.
“To preserve those structures, of course we all know it takes a lot of money, and the fact that counties are financially strapped anyway, anything that could be put into place at least gives us a little bit of opportunity,” Woodward said. “It’s the counties that are a little smaller that struggle with their funding source.”
Cox said that in some counties, lack of funds for courthouse work was a persistent problem. Plus, there is often a lack of political will locally to commit money through a bond issue, for instance, and so there aren’t other revenues available.
“The commission identified one of the major problems was the counties only attend to courthouse preservation, restoration or maintenance when it got to the point it couldn’t be ignored anymore,” he said. The commission in a 2011 report recommended lawmakers enact the revolving loan program Merritt proposed so that counties could have a revenue option that didn’t require issuing bonds.
“In most counties, how it works is the roof starts leaking, and there’s knowledge locally that the roof is getting bad,” Cox said. Without money, “you try to defer it or do something that will put it off … then you get to the point where the whole thing has to be done.”
Glass said some counties have fared better than others when it comes to finding ways to fund courthouse upkeep and restoration. Some near riverboat casinos have been able to tap into the taxes collecting from gaming, for instance.
But Cox hopes lawmakers take some note of the importance of the structures that anchor so many county seats around the state, and whose postponed needs will only cost more in the future.
“When those courthouses were built in the mid-19th century and in the late 19th century, counties really competed and took great pride in these structures,” he said. “Those people in various counties when they were constructing these buildings were on board with what you might call the opulence of it.”
The proposal working its way through the Legislature now would also try to build interest in courthouse preservation by creating a traveling exhibit describing the role of courthouses in the history, architecture and art of the counties and the state. That proposal remains, but the $50,000 originally allocated for the exhibit has likewise been stricken from the most recent version of the bill.•