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Lawmakers advance bill to aid courthouse restoration, but money is missing

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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.
 

courthouse-monroe-15col.jpg The Monroe County Courthouse, above, and the Parke County Courthouse, below, are among 84 in Indiana listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (File Photos)

“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.


courthouse-parke-1col.jpg

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.•

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  • fix this NOW!!
    Considering how ugly all courthouses built after the war look, and how glorious the old ones are, this is really a shame. Shame on these scrurrilous vote-mongers. When they have a chance to do something to preserve our noble Hoosier heritage they muck it up. I will be following up on this with my representative and totally castigating him if he does not help get this fixed. Despicable. Recently I was in Marshall county walking down these august marble steps and admiring the mosaic tile and holding the brass rail and the clients were truly impressed. Take them to some modern cublicle style mostrosity they usually cant tell where the court begins and the shabby bureaucratic container space ends.

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  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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