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Lee County Residents Might Decide Future of County Courthouses

Jason Parrott
Lee County residents might be asked to vote on whether to replace the county's two historic courthouses with a brand new facility.

Lee County's historic courthouses have been the subject of debate for years, specifically regarding whether both are needed or if a single courthouse in the center of the county would best serve the public. It now appears the public will be asked to settle that debate.

The county hired an engineering firm to determine the structural integrity of the North Lee County Courthouse in Fort Madison and the South Lee County Courthouse in Keokuk. The buildings are each more than 125 years old.

  The firm released its final report in May. It states that the buildings need about $1-million in repairs and improvements between them. The firm also said, based on the county's needs, a new courthouse would cost a little less than $9-million.

Lee County Supervisor Don Hunold said before the county board decides whether to proceed with repairs or a new courthouse, the public has the right to weigh in. He called on his fellow supervisors to place a bond referendum for a new $9-million courthouse on the November ballot.

"I want as many voters as want to go out to vote to be able to say yes or no," said Hunold. "I think that's fair."

Hunold does not think a special election would draw out as many residents, compared to the number of people expected to vote in the Presidential race this fall. He said the ballot question should ask voters if the county should borrow up to $9-million to build a new courthouse.

Chairman Ron Fedler agreed, stating that he wants to see the county board vote on the proposed language during its August 9 meeting.

"My big concern is the major repairs [to the current courthouses]," said Fedler. "I can only see costs continuing to go up. We should let the people of Lee County decide this."

Both Hunold and Fedler said they would abide by the will of the people. The passage of a bond referendum requires 60% approval.

Not everyone on the county board is on board with the idea, though.

Supervisor Gary Folluo, who represents portions of Keokuk, repeatedly expressed his frustration with the idea of a countywide vote being organized on such short notice. He also said over and over that it appears the decision has already been made to hold a vote.

County Auditor Denise Fraise told the board any ballot question must be presented to her office by August 31 to be added to the November ballot.

Folluo also questioned the estimated cost of around $9-million, stating he believes a new courthouse that can handle both county and court services would cost in excess of $10-million.

Other questions raised during the meeting include:

  • Where would the new courthouse be built?
  • Does Lee County have the authority to name the eventual location as the new county seat?
  • What would the new courthouse look like?
  • What would happen to the current courthouses?

Hunold said he did not have answers to those questions at this point, because to him, the most important question is whether voters will agree to borrow millions of dollars for a single courthouse. He said if people are not willing to do that, the rest of the questions do not need to be answered.

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.