By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
The Pearl River County Grand Jury’s endorsement, in its latest Grand Jury report, of refurbishing the courthouse and adding two annexes, a proposal that was shot down by supervisors on May 2, 2011, has placed the issue squarely in the supervisors’ plate again.
The Grand Jury said there’s never been a better time for the project because of low interest rates.
The Grand Jury report acknowledged the opposition in the county to any tax increase, but said that supervisors should make a better and more intense effort to inform citizens of the need to upgrade and improve the historic Courthouse Square here.
After pointing out that in 1918 citizens spent $130,000 to construct the old courthouse, which was a lot of money then, the Grand Jury said, “Citizens sacrificed and raised funds for the historic building. Our Historic Courthouse is in need of extensive upgrades in order to preserve its historic value.”
When supervisors previously faced it on May 2, 2011, one year and eight months ago, former District Three Supervisor Hudson Holliday, who forced a vote with a motion to proceed with the renewal project, told the board after it voted his motion down, 3-to-2, that the issue would not go away and that the board would face it again.
“We can sit around and talk about it; it’s not because we want to — it’s because we have to,” said the outspoken Holliday right before the vote was taken. Since then, the issue has never been mentioned publicly at any board meeting, and has not been brought up by any public body until the Grand Jury broached the subject in its latest Grand Jury report, signed by the foreman of the Grand Jury Reba Beebe.
The old courthouse sits there, an annoying essential project, that will not go away or disappear magically and that must be tackled, eventually, before the courthouse just deteriorates more before the board’s eyes, or some fire or horrible accident occurs because of its rundown condition.
Hales told the board when it voted down the proposal in May 2011, “This issue might be brought up before this board again, but it won’t be me bringing it up.” Hales had voted with Holliday to go forward on the project.
Holliday told the board, “That’s why we are here, to make these tough decisions and calls. The old-timers had to do it, and they did it. Now it’s our turn.”
In its latest report, the Grand Jury pointed to exposed electrical wiring in the hall entering the courtroom, which must be some sort of violation of a building or fire code in Poplarville. It continues to go uncorrected.
The three supervisors who voted against going ahead with the project on May 2, 2011 — Joyce Culpepper, J. Patrick Lee and Sandy Kane Smith — said then that they did not vote for the proposal because they did not want to impose any new taxes on residents in bad economic times. Holliday and Hales, who voted to proceed, said things wouldn’t get any better, that now was the time to act, because it, eventually, had to be done.
Some said the $15 million proposed project, that would see two annexes added to the courthouse was too large and wanted it scaled back. Smith said he was for doing the work but not that large a project. Culpepper said the same thing.
That was all before the county’s near financial meltdown in the summer of 2012, and now things might be even tighter. The supervisors during a fiscal crisis last summer, furloughed county workers, and froze hiring and issuance of purchase orders, saying they were in danger of running out of cash before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The board might be even less inclined to do it now than they were then, but no one knows how they feel about it; they haven’t discussed it in open session since the last vote.
Even Circuit Court Clerk Vicki Hariel, whose staff wrestles daily with inadequate space and dilapidated conditions in bathrooms and offices, wonders where the county will get the money to do the project. She spoke to the Picayune Item on Tuesday.
“Go look at Lamar County’s remodeling of their old courthouse. There’s no substitute for money. There is no doubt there’s a definite need for the project, but maybe we could do it piecemeal. Maybe one annex and later the second one. We will eventually have to do something,” said Hariel. “But I don’t know where we will get the money.”
The Grand Jury said a millage rate of about 3.5 mills would have to be levied to generate enough funds to pay off the $15 million the project would probably take. The Grand Jury said that County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin, Jr., said that additional millage would cost a homeowner with a home valued at $100,000 approximately $35 more per year in taxes.
So the question actually is: Are taxpayers willing to pay an additional $35 per year in taxes, or whatever amount would be to set for the value of their house, to support refurbishing the old courthouse and construction of two wings, thus refurbishing completely courthouse square?
Lumpkin presented the board on May 2, 2011, two options: Option 1 — $14.8 million, $1 million for the courthouse renovation and the remainder on the construction of the two wings, applying 2.67 mills the first year and 3.36 mills each year thereafter for the remaining 29 years to pay off $1 million a year; and Option 2 — $13.8 million, $1 million courthouse renovation, showing 2.67 mills the first year to retire $810,000, and 3.36 for the remaining 29 years.
Those figures would undoubtedly change since a millage now, with property devaluation, actually brings in fewer dollars.
Officials said then there was a possibility of getting $5 million from the state on an historical grant to renew the old courthouse.
Supervisors, when they voted on May 2, 2011, said the motion was to proceed, but they did not say under which option. Of course, it didn’t matter because the motion failed.
In a public hearing on the issue, held at the courthouse prior to the vote, residents seemed about equally split on the proposal, as supervisors entertained public input. Supervisors and county officials were subjected to some hostile questioning by residents who did not favor the project.
In its latest report, the Grand Jury pointed to the following problems as needing “immediate attention” in the old courthouse and courthouse annex behind the old courthouse across Julia street:
— Need fire alarm system, automated extinguishing system in areas where combustibles are stored (records areas), fire escapes and exit signs.
— Electrical box outside courtroom near scanner has exposed electrical wiring.
— Electrical box in Chancery Clerk’s office on basement level near sink is uncovered with exposed wiring.
— Warning striping needed as caution for possible trip hazard for witnesses entering witness box.
— Exposed fluorescent bulbs in Circuit Clerk office need method for retention if bulbs were to come loose from sockets.
— Entrance to the courtroom and areas occupied by officers of the court needs upgraded security for the safety of the staff, especially while court is in session.
— The elevator was frequently found “out of order,” further exacerbating the lack of facility accessibility for the handicapped.
— Bathrooms are in poor condition on second level. Women’s bathroom on first floor is in poor condition. Both women’s bathrooms need new flooring and ceilings and walls scraped and painted.
— Peeling paint in the buildings, including the courtroom, needs to be repaired. Opening in courtroom carpeted floor need flush covers. Courtroom carpeting needs cleaning. Several jury chairs are loose and pose a safety hazard. Northeast corner of gallery in Courtroom has missing ceiling molding and several seats in that area are missing seat backs.
— Circuit Clerk Office generally in good condition except for evidence of roof leaks and lack of sufficient records storage cabinets.
— Annex (across Julia in back of old courthouse) storage area walls and ceilings need scraping and repainting. Annex roofing requires repairs as there is evidence of leaks on lower level ceilings and walls.
— Chancery Clerk Office generally in good condition except for basement storage areas that are exposed to repeated flooding.
— Additional handrails needed on walls on stairways. Existing handrails need to be secured.
— Sheriff’s Office needs additional records storage accommodations.