Originally Published: October 6, 2006 4 a.m.
Budge Ruffner in his obituary of Frank Tutt, Prescott mayor from 1962-66, said Tutt was a man who believed people elected him to lead not listen. Mayor Tutt likely did much good, but people remember him for selling Prescott's snowplows to Flagstaff just before the great blizzard of 1967. With roads impassible, National Guard helicopters rescued Prescottonians and brought in food. Tutt, by not listening to citizens, established his legacy.
County officials are establishing their legacy by moving county courts out of downtown without talking to citizens. The supervisors have decided to save money by moving the courts to a planned new "justice center" near the sewer plant. This center initially will house the criminal courts, the jail, the County Attorney's Office, the Public Defenders Office and court administration. Once the criminal courts leave downtown it won't be long until the civil courts leave.
Separate courthouses are impractical. Future supervisors likely will save money by moving all courts to the Sundog location. This is inevitable and will leave an empty hole in the heart of downtown Prescott.
Significant county and city tax revenues come from the downtown businesses. Judges, court personnel, attorneys, litigants and jurors comprise a substantial portion of the weekday traffic in the downtown businesses, particularly restaurants. Tourists come here in significant numbers only on the weekends. A restaurant or bar cannot survive on weekend business.
The supervisors propose to move non-court related, county offices into the courthouse and jail building, but these offices will generate only a fraction of the business the courts do. Downtown businesses will not have the same traffic.
The county should install additional courtrooms in the jail building. Moving the jail makes sense; the jail generates little economic activity downtown. A parking structure could go where the jail parking lot is now, adding to downtown parking. However, any savings from moving the courts to the "sewer district" would pale in comparison to the loss of tax revenue should downtown lose the courts. Businesses benefit from proximity to the courthouse. If the courthouse moves, so will these businesses; perhaps to land not subject to city or county taxes.
Every landowner in the county should be concerned with this issue. The historic and economic vitality of downtown supports property values. Just travel to Globe or Holbrook; see what happens when downtown courthouses move to cheaper land outside of downtown.
City leaders also fail to recognize the value of a vital downtown. The Prescott city manager reportedly said the city "doesn't have a dog in this fight."
A top goal in the 2003 Prescott General Plan requires the city to "encourage retention of current government functions (city, county, state and federal), including courts and law enforcement administration agencies" to "preserve and continually re-vitalize the downtown business community."
The city must use its influence to keep the courts downtown. When "For Rent" signs start popping up in downtown businesses, lost city tax revenue will limit city budgets. Moving the courts out of downtown will be the death knell of the lifestyle we all stayed or moved here for. Before the city and county make that move, they should hear from Yavapai County citizens. That is all I ask.
When the courthouse went downtown, Prescott and Yavapai County citizens determined what they wanted their town to look like, what statement of pride and respect for justice they wanted to make.
The county issued bonds to finance the construction something it has not done before or after. What will it say about Prescott and Yavapai County when the courts relocate downwind from the sewer plant? The community needs a voice in this decision about our statement of who we are and the type of community we wish to live in.
On Saturday at 11 a.m., Save Our Courthouse, LLC will rally on courthouse square to show community support for keeping the courts downtown.
If you are a citizen of Yavapai County, particularly if you own land, you owe it to yourself to join us on the courthouse plaza.
(John E. Phillips is an attorney and landowner in the downtown district, an original incorporator of the Prescott Downtown Partnership, and was instrumental in fixing the courthouse clocks after years of disuse.)