Recently, the University of West Florida’s Haas Center conducted a survey of Santa Rosa County residents about replacing the county’s courthouse. Whether to replace the building and how to replace it has been a persistent debate over the last few years.
Phyllis Pooley, director of special projects with the UWF Office of Economic Development and Engagement, which works closely with the Haas Center, joined Sandra Averhart to discuss the findings.
Santa Rosa County did not order or fund the survey.
The study focused on two main issues: location and funding.
“We thought we will craft a survey and we’ll ask people, Do you think Santa Rosa needs a new courthouse? And if you don’t, Why don’t you think Santa Rosa needs a new courthouse?” Pooley said.
The survey also asked how the county should pay for the new courthouse.
“We crafted this as, ‘What’s your opinion? And here (are) some extra facts, is that changing your mind?’” Pooley said. “It was fascinating what we ended up with as we discovered basically an issue that we thought really, ‘How hard can this be?’ is really a tough decision for Santa Rosa County residents.”
The findings showed that Santa Rosa residents were overwhelmingly in agreement on the issue.
“Most people did agree that Santa Rosa County did need a new courthouse,” she said. “Of those who didn’t, they either thought the old one should be renovated or that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old one, which was kind of an interesting response given all the attention that has been paid.”
Pooley also said a majority of respondents had at some time visited the courthouse.
“Almost everyone we talked to had visited the courthouse,” she said. “Ninety percent of them were registered voters, and 80 percent said that they had voted in the last election regarding this issue.”
Respondents who said they believed the old building needed, at most, renovation as opposed to replacement were asked why they felt that way.
“A lot of people said they would change their minds if they were told that the courthouse was in bad shape, knew more about the new design, location or agreed with what it would cost,” Pooley said. “That was an interesting response seeing as how it has been my impression that the county has been trying to share that kind of information even up to and including a non-binding vote where it should be located.”
Pooley said the findings suggest that Santa Rosa County may have to work harder to inform the public on the issue.
The Haas Center also asked whether a new courthouse should be built in Milton, the county seat, or somewhere else.
“We asked the question of those people who did not want it in Milton, Would they change their mind if they were told that it had to be in the county seat? And a surprising number said that, no, that would not change their minds,” Pooley said. “We did a follow-up bit of research to see how hard it would be to change the county seat only to discover that the county commission, if they follow the proper procedures of noticing and public hearings, can vote to make any portion of the county part of the county seat without changing Milton’s city limits or annexing that property as part of Milton.”
This possible change frees up the courthouse to be built anywhere in the county, broadening the possibilities even more, she said.
“This really is a tough issue, and the county commissioners have a lot of work ahead of them. They may have to come up with a mixture of funding sources,” Pooley said. “They may have to actually outline a bottom line for people. They may have to go so far as to say, ‘This is what it’s going to cost us. We’re going to get this much from this source and this much from this source.’
“I think they may have to start looking at a balanced approach instead of trying to necessarily make it one source or nothing.”
This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity. CREO staff writer Mike Ensley contributed to this report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.