BOISE — A bill to let Bear Lake County raise taxes to build a new courthouse is headed to the Senate floor.
The bill, which passed the House 37-29 last week, is narrowly tailored so as to only apply to the current situation in Bear Lake County, which is under court order to build a new courthouse but hasn’t been able to get voters to approve a bond to do so. It would only apply to counties with fewer than 7,500 people that have held three bond elections and are under a court order issued between March 1, 2018 and Dec. 31, 2019.
“We put that date in there so it would confine the bill to the situation,” said sponsor Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, whose district includes Bear Lake County. “We didn’t want the prospect of other counties running wild with whatever happens.”
Harris told the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee that Bear Lake County’s courthouse, which was built in the 1880s, doesn’t comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Three attempts to pass a bond got majority support but fell short of the two-thirds needed to pass, and Harris said the U.S. Attorney’s office has threatened to sue the county.
County commissioners sought and got a judicial order to build a courthouse costing up to $5.97 million, Harris said. His bill would let Bear Lake County raise taxes by more than the 3 percent statutory cap to make the bond payments.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, cast the only “No” vote. He worried about the precedent of overriding the people’s will when they didn’t approve a bond, and wondered where it would end.
“I think our policy has to be either we have these elections or we’ll not,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said the bill would only apply in cases where there is a court order to make upgrades, not ones where any bond fails and local officials want to override the people’s will. Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, who has done legal work for Bear Lake County, said he has been to the courthouse and it doesn’t comply with laws regarding access for the disabled.
“This is a very worthwhile endeavor, and with the court order that’s sitting there and the threat, I would be very supportive and urge that it pass,” Nye said.