By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
Saying now is the best time because of low interest rates, the Pearl River County Grand Jury has called for reviving plans that would see the old historic county courthouse upgraded, and expanded with an additional two wings. The Grand Jury recently filed its latest report.
The Grand Jury also said that it heard testimony from Picayune school administrators that “off-campus drug activities were affecting the students on campus.” The Grand Jury report, however, did not elaborate on that issue.
The last time the county was pushed into making a decision on the issue of the courthouse’s deterioration was on May 2, 2011, when former District Three Supervisor Hudson Holliday forced a vote on the issue, but it failed 3 to 2. The Grand Jury’s recent report was the first time it has been brought back up by a Pearl River County public body.
Under the topic “Courthouse and Courthouse Annex,” the Grand Jury outlined, in boldface print, problems and deficiencies with the current courthouse on Courthouse Square here on North Main Street.
Then under the heading “Board of Supervisors,” the Grand Jury said, “Construction costs will never be lower than they are now and with the current low interest rates, now would be a perfect time to finance funds to refurbish the historic building and the new construction. County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin, Jr., said that for a house valued at $100,000, the increase would be $35 per year tax increase.”
Saying the original courthouse in 1918 cost $130,000 to build, the Grand Jury added, “A millage increase of 3.5 (mills) would need to take place to pay for the cost to refurbish the historic building for future generations to enjoy. Also, designs to construct wings on both ends of the current courthouse to match the architecture of the historic courthouse would cost $15 million.”
The Grand Jury continued, “County offices, currently in county-owned buildings, also in need of electrical and roof repairs, could relocate to the new facility. . .”
It was May 2, 2011, when the courthouse refurbishing and upgrading issue was last on the supervisors’ plate and out in the open. Then former-Supervisor Holliday told the board, “We are sent up here to vote on issues. And to just sit here and do nothing doesn’t make any sense. . . I make a motion that we proceed.”
Holliday ran for governor later, did not run for re-election as supervisor, and Dennis Dedeaux won his seat.
Supervisor Anthony Hales, Sr., seconded Holliday’s motion, and the vote was 3 to 2. Holliday and Hales voted for proceeding with the architect’s plans, and supervisors J. Patrick Lee, Joyce Culpepper and Sandy Kane Smith voted not to proceed. The issue died then and was never again brought up or discussed. Lee, Culpepper and Smith said they did not want to raise taxes in bad economic times, that residents were under financial stress.
The Grand Jury’s mention of the project is the first time it’s been mentioned by a public body since the May 2 vote. The vote came shortly after a public hearing on the issue, held in the old courthouse. Residents who attended seemed to be evenly split on the issue.
Proponents of the project say money will never be as cheap as it is now, say that conditions in the old courthouse are deplorable and disgraceful, and cannot be tolerated any longer, and in some cases are a danger to the health of employees and residents doing business there, and that refurbishing the courthouse square will be an incentive for others to refurbish other sections of downtown Poplarville.
One businessman said it would set off a construction boom, as new restaurants and shops open to serve visitors, those using the courts and doing county business here, and will increase property values around the new construction on courthouse square.
Proponents also say that the old county buildings occupied by other government agencies, such as the county tax offices, are in need of upgrading now, and patching the old buildings will be only a Band-Aid approach to fixing the problems of deterioration.
Opponents of the project say the county cannot afford any new property taxes on land and property owners, that county taxpayers are maxed out on taxes. Supervisors who voted no on May 2, 2011, cited the bad economy and said adding additional taxes onto residents would make matters worse.
The county Grand Jury is the most powerful government entity in the county when in session. It meets twice a year to handle criminal indictments and can actually investigate any matter it wants to in the county if it votes to do so.
The DA guides and helps the Grand Jury during its sessions. The Grand Jury is made up of average citizens chosen at random from a voter pool to serve on the Jury.
During its last session, the Grand Jury investigated 199 matters, heard testimony from 49 witnesses and returned 170 true bills of indictment, containing 256 counts with respect to 216 individual defendants, the Grand Jury report said.
Supervisors plan to meet on Feb. 20, and it’s not clear at press time whether or not they will discuss the Grand Jury’s report on the issue.