The Dawson County Board of Commissioners approved a site plan Oct. 16 that includes a portion of downtown land currently owned by the Turner family for the new 1-cent tax approved courthouse.
In a tie vote broken by Chairman Mike Berg, the commission determined option two of three choices presented by architectural firm Rosser International was the best fit for Dawson County at a cost of about $29.6 million.
The board also voted to allow Dawson County Manager Kevin Tanner to move forward with negotiations with the Turner family for an additional 2.5 acres needed for the project.
"I want to go with the best option for the citizens," said District 3 Commissioner Mike Connor, who made the motion to approve the measure. "If we're going to spend $28 million, let's get something decent to look at."
The chosen option calls for the construction of a new courthouse adjacent to the current courthouse, which would be demolished within 24 months in order for the Turner family to move forward with a previously approved business/office park.
The Turners have put their project on hold in order to reach a compromise with the county, which initially had planned to condemn the Turner's land at the intersection of Hwy. 53 and Shoal Creek Road for the new courthouse.
"I'm waiting out of good faith at this point to start construction on this site," said Mike Turner, speaking on behalf of the Turner family. "Once we come to terms on what we're going to do, I'm ready to go to work. I'm only waiting to start the construction out of the fact that we agreed to negotiate out of good faith and I think that's bad faith if I go forward."
The chosen courthouse option also includes a green space area intended to be utilized as a park.
"What I like most about Option 2 is it reserves our ability to create literally a park amenity for our citizens and change what would be putting another footprint of a building down in creating a town square," District 2 Commissioner Terri Tragesser said. "And it brings a relationship between the old courthouse and what would be the new courthouse."
District 1 Commissioner Gary Pichon, who unsuccessfully motioned for a scaled down courthouse version that did not incorporate land owned by the Turner family, said his concern in choosing option 2 is tied to the current economy.
"The problem with option 2 is when we start down that road...if the funding (SPLOST taxes received) drops further, we'll have committed ourselves to having to tear the old courthouse down," he said. According to a presentation by Bryce Holcomb of CitiGroup to the board of commissioners last week, Dawson County has seen a decline of 7.19 percent in SPLOST collections in the last nine months.
Without being tied to tearing down the current courthouse in 24 months, Pichon said the county could utilize the building for administrative purposes until tax revenues return to normal.
"If we choose option 2 we have chosen a path that says in two years we'll have to have that building out of the way so that Turners can construct their building in that spot. If the economy crumbles and we're in for a long recession, we could end up without sufficient money already in the till and have to go back to the taxpayers and I would loath to do that," he said.
Turner, who prefers the county choose an option that does not utilize the family's land, said, he agreed to option 2 with much hesitation in an effort to avoid condemnation.
"Under the threat of condemnation, with a gun to my head, I agreed to negotiate something that we could at least salvage that would be viable for us. I'm still not in agreement of it but I'm willing to accept it. That was our compromise. That was our willingness to be a good citizen, a good neighbor, because we are going to be neighbors from now on," he said.
Both parties will now enter into further negotiations, which will be brought back to the commission for approval once the parties agree, Tanner said.
The board of commissioners is now considering a request to invest $8.65 million of the courthouse project proceeds to reserve for debt service and maximize the earnings as debt service is due and invest the remaining $24 million bond funds. The board has also been asked to review a county investment policy.