County board moves forward on courthouse project

Artist rendering of courthouse renovation project

Resolution approved to borrow money for renovations

by Angie Asam–Staff Writer

Last Wednesday the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution of intent to proceed with the courthouse renovation project. The board approved a notice of intent to issue bonds in an amount up to $3.5 million with an interest rate not to exceed 4 percent annually.

Today marks the start of the 45-day referendum period during which county voters can file a petition that would require a vote of the public before bonds could be issued. By statute, under section 517 of Act 34 of 2001, the revised municipal finance act, the county has the right to issue bonds without a vote of the electors to pay the costs of any capital improvement.

Because the bonds are not at this point going to the approval of the voters, the county cannot levy taxes beyond existing constitutional and statutory limitations to pay for the debt service on the bonds.

To push the issue to an election by the voters a petition signed by not less than 10 percent or 15,000 of the registered voters in the county must be filed with the county clerk during the 45-day referendum period.

The county board of commissioners has been studying and reviewing the project and have been putting money away in a courthouse construction fund, giving it the option to put up to $800,000 down on the project. The estimated project cost is around $4 million dollars and would include a second floor above the jail to house the courts, court offices and clerk’s office as well as renovations to the existing annex before the old building is torn down and a new two-story entrance and the final offices are constructed.

BECAUSE OF the nature of the bonds, the county will not be raising taxes to pay for the bonds and the money will be coming from the general fund as it works to repay the bonds. The county hopes to borrow from a local institution and use as many local contractors as possible once work begins.

Early in history courthouses were constructed as a place to hold trials and record deeds as the timber and agriculture markets were developing a great deal of land. The courthouse was also the place to record births, deaths and marriages and it was not unusual for courthouses to be looked at with a great deal of pride by the county’s residents.

Presque Isle County originated in 1871 with a board of supervisors. Architectural plans were approved in the amount of $300 to begin construction of the first county courthouse in 1872. The building was completed in 1874 and a third story was added in 1880 however, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the building on Jan. 14, 1881.

Soon after the devastating fire petitions from townships requested that a new county building be built on the same site. “Frank Sommer was contracted to build a new courthouse for the sum of $2,973 plus another $989 for other expenses. By the fall of 1883 the building was completed enough to hold court,” according to board chairman Carl Altman who did some historical research into the building.

In the 20 years that followed many improvements were made to the grounds and an addition was built to house a vault for the treasurer’s and register of deed’s offices.

In 1959 the board of supervisors sought permission to issue bonds in the amount of $560,000 to erect a new courthouse and jail. At the time the courthouse was about 75 years old and its useful life expectancy was about 60 years. The jail had been condemned in 1958. The proposal was defeated by the voters in November 1959 by a vote of 1,033-693.

Rogers City Area Schools offered the county the old high school building (Grambau Center) for $100,000 but renovation costs of more than a half of a million dollars deterred the board from purchasing the building.

In 1988 the commission agreed to build an annex on the north end of the courthouse. The annex was dedicated on Jan. 21, 1989. “In January 2008 the county purchased the Nowicki’s Sausage Shop and parking lot with the intent to refurbish the building and provide office space so that offices could be moved off the third floor of the courthouse which was condemned by the state fire marshall. This most recent phase of development was completed in May of 2012,” said Altman.

In October 2012 the commissioners reviewed the newest plans for renovation and reconstruction of the courthouse. The proposed plans included construction of a second-floor addition over the jail to house two courtrooms, along with court and county offices. The proposed addition would be connected to the present annex and would contain a secure elevator going to the jail. Once the addition is completed the old wood-framed courthouse would be raised and a new two-story main entrance constructed. The scope of the work would be completed over a two-year period.

THE RESOLUTION that was passed last week is the first step toward completing the project. The renovation/reconstruction project is needed for a variety of reasons including ongoing leaking problems, mold problems, security issues and energy costs.

An article in next week’s Advance will look further into the issues that have put this project into play.