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Lee County Courthouse Bond Referendum On November Ballot

Aug 10, 2016

Voter turnout for the November general election was already expected to be high in Lee County, given the tone of the Presidential campaign. Now, it could reach unprecedented levels thanks to a divisive issue being added to the ballot.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2, Tuesday morning, to place a question on the ballot regarding the county’s historic courthouses in Keokuk and Fort Madison.

Voting Yes : Chairman Ron Fedler (D-West Point), Rick Larkin (D-Fort Madison), Don Hunold (D-Donnellson)

Voting No : Gary Folluo (D-Keokuk), Vice Chairman Matt Pflug (D-Keokuk)

The board voted without seeing the language for the bond referendum -- it will be written by legal counsel at a later date. Supporters say the question will ask residents to give the county the authority to borrow nearly $9 million to build a new courthouse in a central location.

The decision to add the question to the general election ballot was prompted by a report from an engineering firm that said it would cost less than $9-million dollars to build a new single courthouse versus $1 million over the next five years to address immediate repairs in the current buildings.

Fedler said since the ballot referendum was proposed on Aug. 2, he’s had plenty of people seek him out to share their thoughts.

“They felt that it should not be up to this board to make that decision,” said Fedler. “They felt it should be up to the citizens of Lee County. I think that is the best way to do it.”

It was Hunold who raised the issue of the public vote this month, as he said that the engineering report gives the county the facts that can be presented to voters to help them make up their minds. He said he knows this will be a big step in the history of Lee County government, no matter what happens.

“Nothing that ever goes forward is ever smooth, it never is,” said Hunold. “If we went to the fact that this is tough and we should not do it, we would still be riding horses.”

The supervisors debated the ballot referendum for nearly an hour during this week's meeting.

During that time, Folluo provided the most vocal opposition. He pointed out multiple times that the board was rushing the process and that there was an ulterior motive.

“What are people voting on?” asked Folluo. “You don’t even know. You don’t have a clue. You don’t have an impact study on what the changes to the government of this county [would be]. That is what the bottom line is. It’s not about the building, it is about changing the county seat and you are changing the people of Lee County’s form of government.”

Fedler said people will only be voting on borrowing nearly $9-million for the new courthouse, nothing more. He said other information cannot be placed on the ballot, such as where it will be located or what will happen to the two current courthouses if the new one is built.

Folluo responded, "This has not been thought through. We have been fooling around with this for 20 years and it’s been the objective of certain people. It’s a political issue and some people are going to make it happen no matter what happens.”

Folluo even questioned the motives of Fedler in regards to the engineering report. The report was only supposed to include the list of required repairs to the courthouses in Keokuk and Fort Madison, but it also included a cost estimate for a new courthouse with four courtrooms and office space for departments.

“The [engineer] said the Chairman asked for [the single courthouse cost],” said Folluo. “That’s nonsense. You guys can play our games all you want to. It’s not right and you know it’s not right.

“I’m not playing any games,” said Fedler, to which Folluo responded, “Yes, you are.”

Eventually, Larkin pointed out that the bond referendum requires 60% approval, which can be difficult to get, especially on a topic like this.

“Anytime you have 60%, that is a supermajority,” said Larkin. “If 60% of the people that are going to vote in the general election, when more people are going to vote in this election than any other election, if 60% approve it, it is overwhelming that people want to have one courthouse. But if they don’t and we get 55%, it fails.”

Mary Van Pelt of Montrose followed up on that idea when given the opportunity to speak to the board. Van Pelt formed her own committee several years ago to look into the future of the two courthouses and raised the idea of a new courthouse.

“I want to apologize because I think I am the lady that brought this up two years ago,” said Van Pelt. “But I am to the point now that I want this. I know that if this were to go on the ballot, there will be committees set up ‘pro’ and ‘con.’ If it doesn’t pass, then let’s sweep it under the rug, let’s fix up these old courthouses, get them up to snuff like they are supposed to be. If it does not pass, put the services back in [both Keokuk and Fort Madison] and let the taxpayers pay the money.”

That would essentially negate the office consolidation that occurred roughly five years ago, when the Auditor and Treasurer consolidated operations in Fort Madison and the Recorder and Assessor did the same in Keokuk. Since then, the services have gradually returned to both locations, though on a limited basis.