The Nez Perce County courthouse advisory vote is more like a Rorschach test than a ballot measure.
Whatever pattern you see shaping up in the results may not be apparent to anyone else.
At 131 years old, the courthouse is obsolete and decrepit. It has bad plumbing. It is not accessible to the disabled. It presents security risks. Addressing the issue will cost an estimated $34.9 million to $46.5 million. And rather than float a bond issue, requiring two-thirds voter approval, the county plans to spend its budget cushion on a yearly lease-purchase payment.
So you were presented with these options:
l Do you build new, purchase and renovate an existing building or remodel the current structure?
l When do you proceed — as soon as possible or when more money is saved?
l Where do you build — at a central location, at a place that can be expanded later, at the most economical site or on the current courthouse footprint?
Here’s some of what you may not have been told.
Obtaining and using one of the empty big box stores in Lewiston may not be viable. Some may not have the required space. Others, if not all, may operate under covenants that require new occupants to be engaged in commercial activity, not delivering government services.
And as Lewiston discovered at the time it evaluated its options for a high school, renovating an older building is fraught with problems. In the case of the high school, the community was evaluating a building just shy of 90 years old — not 131 years — and found new construction cheaper.
Then there were the questions that were missing.
Chief among them would be the standard no-change option. Nor were voters asked to weigh in on whether they’d prefer to pass a bond — as they have with a high school and water and wastewater treatment plants.
Given the complexity, some voters took a pass. Of the 21,302 people who cast a ballot in the Nov. 3 election, 1,949 — or more than 9 percent — skipped voting on the courthouse measure. Maybe they had ballot fatigue. Or simply too few of them figured on doing much business in this or any courthouse in the foreseeable future.
From there, the confusion only mounts.
On the question of what to build, 40.4 percent said remodel and expand the historic building. Some would call that a plurality. On the other hand, nearly 60 percent prefer doing something else.
There’s not much ambiguity about timing — 57.3 percent want to move now rather than wait.
But there’s nothing clear about location. It’s split right down the middle — a third like the current site, another third want to find the cheapest place while 18.3 percent prefer a centralized setting and 14 percent put a priority on finding something that can be expanded.
In a perfect world, this advisory vote would have been tied to a public education campaign. COVID-19 made public forums, including tours of the courthouse, problematic.
However, if you were looking for clarity and moving the community closer toward securing a new courthouse, this ballot measure came up short. — M.T.