Accolades were flowing freely at the St. Francois County Courthouse Annex Tuesday. County officials gathered to dedicate the $5.5 million annex to Jim Henson, and they gave a fond farewell to the two retiring associate commissioners.
Associate Commissioner Bill Bradley recalled how the county was annually chastised for having court facilities that were too small to provide adequate security.
“It takes money and we could not come up with a way to do it without raising taxes,” Bradley said. “But it was something that really needed to be done and Jim was the one with the vision who figured out how it could be done without raising taxes.”
Associate Commissioner Ron VarVera echoed the sentiment. “It was well deserved of Jim, it was his project,” VarVera said. “Jim did a tremendous job putting it together.”
After a brief dedication ceremony naming the building after Henson, the crowd moved upstairs to the County Commission meeting room for another ceremony, this one to recognize the combined 44 years of service between VarVera and Bradley.
Plaques, proclamations and even a court order were read praising the two commissioners for their achievements. The court order came from the Assessor’s Office and noted that the two could not be put out for bid as their value was “priceless.”
Henson praised both commissioners and said they had been a blessing to him. He said they understood that you have to have a commission that trusts one another. “You have to be able to get a call from them, they have to be able to give their word and keep it,” Henson said. “That’s the way I’d like to see it work.”
When it was his turn to speak, Bradley told the crowd they could not have had a finer commissioner than Ron VarVera and that many people did not know how much of an asset the associate commissioner had been. VarVera returned the favor when it was his turn to speak and said much the same of Bradley.
Bradley said he is proudest of the 911 service, a project “Doc” Caster, then presiding commissioner, asked him to spearhead.
“We put it to a vote of the people, and it passed,” Bradley said.
At first, they started out as a nonprofit, but then it was learned the service could not obtain the state MULES program that way. The nonprofit was dissolved and it was brought in under a county board.
The initial director was let go, Bradley said, and the current director Alan Wells was hired. “That’s the best thing that happened to the dispatch center,” Bradley added. “The reason I am so proud of it, is it is state of the art and people have come from far and wide to check it out and see how we do it.”
Bradley said he is also proud that most of the gravel roads in the county have been changed over to blacktop.
“My mom always said you should leave a place better than when you got there, and I really believe we have.”
Bradley has said he plans to spend some time traveling and watching sports games his grandchildren are playing. He was a commissioner for 18 years.
VarVera, who has been a commissioner for 26 years, counted his biggest achievement as getting the road department on a stable financial footing.
“When I took office, we were borrowing money the first of February every year,” VarVera said. That is no longer the case. “We haven’t borrowed money like that in 10 years.”
Expenses were tracked and cut, and a campaign to pass a road tax was engaged. That sales tax made an aggressive schedule of road improvements possible. “We put out a list of what we would use the tax for and we stuck with it,” VarVera said. “That’s why voters have reapproved it.”
That tax is vital to keeping the roads in outstanding condition, VarVera said, adding it is due to sunset (end) again soon.
“Without it you would not be able to do anything,” he said. “You could not maintain the roads or do any snow removal.”
Another accomplishment of which VarVera is particularly proud is the new county jail. Before it was built, the county’s jail was a two-bay facility built in 1860. One of the cells, converted to a camera room, still had a dirt floor, VarVera said, and the security was inadequate.
The new facility has 125 beds and its security is up-to-date.
VarVera’s likely retirement will include spending more time on his farm and riding his champion horses.