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N.D. voters to decide McLean County Courthouse's future

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McLean County Courthouse
The McLean County Courthouse, built in 1906, has had a bat problem for years.

WASHBURN — McLean County might be ready to give up on its aging courthouse.

County voters will go to the polls Nov. 2 to decide whether to tear down the structure and build a new $5.5 million building.

The county already has abandoned the older portion of the courthouse. A colony of bats believed to be spreading a fungal infection called histoplasmosis drove the decision, but the building also has structural concerns.

The estimate for repairing the old building and sealing up the dangerous spores from bat droppings in the hollows of the walls is $6.2 million, plus another

$1 million to shore up the floor to eliminate the sinking feeling that people get when they walk across it, said Les Korgel, county auditor.

Part of the reason for the high estimate is because doing major work, including addressing water problems and tuck-pointing the brick, would cause the county to lose an exemption from the fire code. That means additional work to enclose stairwells, remove transoms over the doors and fireproof the woodwork. It’s not just the cost that turned the county commission against remodeling, though.

“The main factor in this whole thing was the architect said even after we do all these things, nobody can guarantee there will be no problem with histoplasmosis down the road,” Korgel said.

Two employees have become ill from histoplasmosis in the past two years.

Leasing space isn’t an option because there are no buildings in Washburn that could accommodate all the county offices, Korgel said. The cost of renting could be as high as $10,000 a month, which quickly adds up, he said.

The county commission’s intent is to build a smaller, more efficient building to connect to a recently built law enforcement center before tearing down the old courthouse.

Korgel said the design of the present building wastes space and has led to high utility bills. Sections of the older portion were built in 1907 and 1917. An addition was built in the 1960s.

Social services moved from the newer portion earlier this year and is renting space in Washburn. Administrative offices that were in the older portion then moved into the space vacated by Social Services. First District Health Unit had moved its office out of the courthouse about two years ago because of the occasional appearance of a live bat. District court also holds sessions elsewhere.

Funding for the construction will come from

$1 million of county resources and a 20-year, $4.5 million Coal Severance Trust Fund loan. The county will repay the loan with income from its share of the state’s coal severance tax, but that will mean a reduction in revenue to the county. The extra tax to landowners for the project comes to $38 a year on a $100,000 home or $21 on about a quarter of farmland with a taxable value of $50,000.

Korgel said the tax estimates will go down almost right away because of construction being completed at an ethanol plant. The resulting increase in the county’s overall tax base will lower costs to landowners.

A simple majority is needed to pass the measure. If voters approve, construction could start next spring. Construction is expected to take a little more than a year.

If voters reject the plan, the county commission will have to re-examine its options, but salvaging the old courthouse isn’t among the alternatives, even if some other organization wanted to take over the building, Korgel said.

“The liability with the problems it has, there’s no way we would allow it,” he said.

Voters had rejected the idea of remodeling the courthouse or building a new one in 2002. However, that was before the recent cases of histoplasmosis.

Throughout October, McLean officials will be speaking before various groups across the county to explain the measure.

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