JOLIET — Will County got a financial leg up in building a new courthouse Friday when the city of Joliet announced its pledge of more than $10 million over a 20-year period as an incentive for the county to stay downtown.
County leaders earlier this year asked the city to be a financial partner in the major capital project. City and county officials said Friday during a joint press conference that the city would contribute $500,000 annually over two decades and waive $2.3 million in building permit fees as part of a tentative deal between the local government bodies.
County officials have pegged the First Midwest Bank site at Ottawa and Jefferson streets, which the county bought last year, as a potential location for a new courthouse.
A groundbreaking is expected in 2018 with a two- to three-year timeline for completion. The new building is expected to cost between $150 million and $175 million.
Joliet Mayor Bob O'Dekirk said he and county leaders worked closely to reach a compromise that would help keep the courthouse in the downtown area.
“I'm happy to say the new courthouse is going to be built here in downtown Joliet. It's going to serve as an anchor in Joliet going forward,” O'Dekirk said.
Joliet councilman John Gerl, who led negotiations for the city, said he believes Joliet will fit the $500,000 into the city's operating budget.
"We see this as an investment," he said.
'Slowing down the wheels of justice'
Conversations surrounding a new county courthouse picked up over the last year, due to the county’s growing population, coupled with a lack of sufficient space and security in the existing facility, built in 1969.
The county's population was 250,000 when the existing courthouse was built, said County Board member Ragan Freitag, R-Wilmington, who is also an attorney. Now, its population is close to 700,000, with the courthouse seeing about 800,000 annual visitors.
The county has experienced "significant growth" in the last 46 years, Freitag said, and has become “ground zero for those growing pains."
“As an attorney, I regularly work in this courthouse. I see firsthand how the lack of necessary space and modern security are slowing down the wheels of justice," she said.
County Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt said the monetary partnership is a “very important step” in financing the construction of a safe, secure and efficient courthouse that serves current and future needs.
The board plans to sell bonds this fall to help pay for a new courthouse.
County Board Speaker Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort, said county officials may use a mix of revenue sources to help pay back the bonds over time, including an RTA sales tax and courthouse parking lot revenues.
Other potential funding sources include about $1.5 million annually from a recently-enacted court user fee and another $2.4 million from a property tax increase dedicated for capital improvements approved during last year’s budget cycle.
Now, the city's contribution will help, too, Moustis said.
"This is the No. 1 priority for us. And it should be the No. 1 priority for the people," he said.
The courthouse will be built with existing county funds without raising county taxes, Moustis said.
County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. a day earlier cautioned against shifting RTA tax revenue away from the county's road-and-bridge projects.
On Friday, Walsh said he plans to work closely with all county leaders to find creative revenue sources to pay for upcoming capital projects.
Moustis on Friday said there is "plenty of money" for roads and bridges, noting there's $100 million — or about three years' worth of transportation projects — in reserves.
“Public safety is just as important. This is truly a public safety issue," Moustis said.