SANDPOINT — An end appears in sight in the saga of the Bonner County Courthouse.
First District Judge Benjamin Simpson ruled on Monday that completing the protracted remodeling project is an ordinary and necessary expense, clearing the way for the county to incur indebtedness beyond a single fiscal year.
The Idaho Constitution forbids counties from taking on such debts, but there’s an exception when those costs are for ordinary and necessary expenses, such as maintaining government facilities or bringing them to a serviceable state.
Simpson ruled from the bench following a brief hearing in which no objections were raised and the need to bring the courthouse back online went uncontested.
Phased remodeling of the 100-year-old facility began in 2006, but ran into trouble in 2010, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the county to rid the building of asbestos in one fell swoop instead of in phases.
The asbestos remediation greatly increased the cost of the project.
“That essentially spent all of the county’s budgeted funds,” said Stephanie Bonney, a Boise attorney representing the county in its petition for judicial confirmation of financing options to complete the remodel.
Filed in August, the petition asked a district judge to confirm that the renovations were ordinary and necessary. The county also asked the court to rule on whether inter-fund transfers can be used to cover financial shortfalls on projects.
But Simpson declined to rule on the question of inter-fund transfers, leaving only the question of ordinary and necessary.
County officials argued in affidavits that the courts’ temporary location at the Bonner County Administration Building created a number of security challenges in keeping visitors, inmates and court personnel properly segregated.
After reviewing briefs filed in the case and pertinent case law, Simpson ruled that the county met the burden of showing a courthouse is an ordinary expense.
Simpson said the case turned on the question of necessity.
“There is no available alternative within Bonner County to provide an adequate judicial facility,” said Simpson.
The county’s petition seeks confirmation of up to $1.5 million in financing, but commission Chairman Cornel Rasor said it may only need up to $400,000 to complete the project.
The county intends to obtain financing with 2 or 3 percent interest and to pay off the loan within 15 years.
The larger sum was used in court documents because the county was in the process of drawing up the budget when the petition was filed and it was unclear how much they could wring out of the spending plan to defray courthouse expenses, Rasor said.
Rasor said the courthouse could be back in operation in late January or early February — a time frame that’s more solid than ever because there aren’t any construction mysteries sealed behind walls.
Commissioner Mike Nielsen was disappointed the court did not take up the inter-fund transfer issue, which he contends is contrary to state law.
“That was my whole reason for pushing this,” Nielsen said after the hearing.
Rasor said the remodel has been dogged by the misconception that it would have been cheaper to build anew. He said the remodel’s bottom line will be around $6 million and it would have cost upwards of $9 million to acquire property and construct a new facility.
Rasor said there is also a perception that the county gutted the Road & Bridge budget to pay for the courthouse renovation.
“Road & Bridge is fully funded,” he said.