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ROCK ISLAND -- Rock Island County Sheriff Gerry Bustos made the case Tuesday night to county board members for why the courthouse should be demolished. 

Bustos gave a photo presentation to board members during their regular meeting, showing how the historic courthouse, built between 1895-97, has continued to decay. 

Bustos said the damage is beyond repair and the county cannot afford the estimated multimillion dollar renovation.

"These pictures show the condition of the old courthouse as it stands today; they were taken last week," Bustos said. "These pictures will highlight the building’s rapid deterioration due to hazardous materials mitigation and obvious fatigue from water leaking."

Bustos showed slide after slide of crumbling ceilings, rotting wood, plaster peeling away from walls, exposed wiring, structural problems and exterior damage, including crumbling stone stairs.

Drop ceilings and some tile floors inside the building have been removed due to asbestos abatement, further compromising the integrity of the structure. 

Bustos said the building, 210 15th St., also poses a safety hazard and endangers the Justice Center Annex, which is a mere 30 feet away.

Court functions were moved to the annex in December after construction was completed of the three-story 46,000-square-foot building.

"Given the location of the old vacant courthouse, dangerous security problems multiply because of elevated platforms, cover and concealment for violent action such as barricaded occupants, bombings, bomb threats and shootings on entry and exit points with full-view glass walls of the east side of the new courthouse," Bustos said. 

"The vacant courthouse will contribute to other dangerous problems and crimes common in vacant buildings such as theft of scrap metal, rodent infestation, graffiti, broken windows, illegal drug use and homeless encampments," Bustos said. 

Muffled laughter could be heard from the gallery where several courthouse supporters were seated. 

Bustos then read off a list of Illinois state statutes outlining part of his responsibilities as sheriff is to secure the building.

"Although this building is vacant, it is still a courthouse," Bustos said. "I will not waste any tax dollars on a building that is vacant, dangerous and has no future."

The fate of the courthouse remains in limbo since the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, revoked the permit and letter of compliance from the annex construction project in November. The SHPO discovered the permit application originally submitted for construction of the annex did not include demolition of the courthouse.

The SHPO notified county officials in November that proposed demolition of the historic courthouse is subject to state review according to the Illinois State Agency Historic Resources Preservation Act.

With the absence of a state permit, the city of Rock Island has refused to issue a demolition permit. 

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To complicate matters further for the county, a lawsuit was filed Feb. 6 by six plaintiffs seeking to block demolition of the courthouse.

Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Rock Island Preservation Society, the Moline Preservation Society, the Broadway Historic District Association, and Frederick Shaw, one of the bondholders in the Justice Center Annex project, filed suit against Rock Island County and the Public Building Commission. 

The Public Building Commission plans to spend up to $1.6 million in leftover bond money from the $28 million annex project to go toward demolition of the courthouse. 

Part of the lawsuit questions the legality of using bond funds that were borrowed for the purpose of construction to also be used for demolition.

County board members voted 17 to 6 in July to transfer the deed of the courthouse to the Public Building Commission for the purpose of demolition. Kimberly Callaway Thompson, Edna Sowards, Richard Morthland, Don Johnston, Robert Westpfahl and Cecilia O’Brien opposed.

Bustos said he will present the same slideshow to the court when the case is heard. 

During public comments on Tuesday, several people spoke in support of saving the courthouse.

Rock Island resident Tom Sparkman said if the courthouse is sold to a private developer, Bustos would no longer have to worry about its upkeep and security. 

"Everything Sheriff Bustos said goes away if that courthouse is privatized," Sparkman said. "There are serious investors who really want to talk to you. They have money available and tax incentives will fund up to $3 million per project. Why don't we listen to them? This building is an asset. It has historical value, financial value, aesthetic value. 

"The city of Rock Island has offered their services for economic development," Sparkman said. "Why don't we talk to them? I've never heard anyone on the county board come up with a good reason why we need to tear this building down."

Architect Bill Handel dismissed Bustos' safety concerns. 

"The sheriff talks about security concerns with the new annex," Handel said. "Well, who decided to put a giant glass fish bowl on that side of the courthouse?"

Rock Island resident Aiden Landman told board members that he will be "actively working" to re-elect those who voted against demolition.

County board member Rich Morthland, R-Cordova, said after the meeting that Bustos is responsible for allowing the courthouse to fall into disrepair and posed a question for Bustos.

"Since you have made it clear you have been in charge of the care of our historic old courthouse, and since you are now reporting to the board about what you deem to be its decrepit and irretrievable state, what do you have to say for yourself and your self-admitted dereliction of duty?" Morthland said. 

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