Courthouse Proposal Didn’t Reach Sept. 9 Ballot

Wed July 30, 2003 - Southeast Edition

EVERGREEN, AL (AP) With a lawsuit blocking demolition of the historic Conecuh County courthouse, officials hoped to bring the project before voters in the Sept. 9 statewide tax referendum.

Gov. Bob Riley turned down a request by county commissioners to add to the tax ballot a local amendment that could have cleared the way for demolition of the century-old courthouse and allowed construction of a new one.

In a statement, the commission said a staff member in Riley’s office notified them that the governor did not want any other issues included on the ballot for Riley’s $1.2-billion tax and accountability package.

But Riley spokesman David Azbell said the call for the Sept. 9 election had already been issued when the state officials were asked to put the courthouse proposal on the ballot.

The county’s plans to demolish the crumbling historic courthouse were blocked in January when the Alabama Historical Commission, the Alabama Preservation Alliance and local resident J.C. Padgett filed a lawsuit.

The suit accused the county of breaking state law when they planned to use more than $3 million for anything but paying for a new jail and renovating the courthouse.

A circuit judge agreed, barring the use of the money for demolition or new courthouse construction, but the judge declined to force the county to renovate the old structure. The county appealed that decision to the Alabama Supreme Court, which has not ruled on it.

County commissioners got local legislators to pass a measure in an earlier special session that would reword a constitutional amendment passed in 1998.

Under the current amendment, the county can collect increased court fees but must use the money for building a new jail and for renovation of the historic courthouse.

The amendment awaiting a vote would remove any reference to renovation of the old courthouse, restricting use of the money to debt service payment or operation of the new jail. The amendment must first be approved by county voters.

Conecuh officials had hoped to get the measure included on the Sept. 9 ballot to save half an estimated $40,000 in election costs. If the governor had included the Conecuh proposal on the ballot, the cost would have been split between the county and state for the local election.

The county contends the money generated by the fee increase isn’t adequate to pay jail construction costs, let alone restore the old courthouse. The county’s bond attorney removed the court fees from a warrant issue meant to fund construction of a new courthouse.

Conecuh County Administrator Harry Still said he was unsure when the courthouse vote would take place. He said the governor by law has to set the date.