Contentious Justice Center project moves forward

Staff Writer

A contractor officially has been picked and the Clay County Justice Center project is on schedule to start construction next spring, Clay County supervisors were told Monday.

But the discussion continues to spark unrest occasionally as an outspoken critic continues to question supervisors.

To a degree, the board put that to rest after contractor Mike Henson appeared at a second meeting in four days to demand answers.

"Our next step is to get the plans finished," Rudy Johnson, executive director of the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District, said Monday after telling the board his agency had selected Jackson-based Benchmark Construction to handle the Justice Center job.

"We want local contractors bidding on the work, to be involved in this renovation. If someone in Clay County can do this work, that's what we want them to do," Johnson added, noting supervisors should get a look at the latest revised plans by next month.

The county plans to renovate the 25,000-square-foot Pass It On/Jitney Jungle building on Main Street in West Point into offices and courtrooms for Justice and Circuit courts and related agencies. The GTPDD, through its tax exempt Golden Triangle Public Buildings Corp., will finance the renovation and the county will buy it through a 12-year lease-purchase agreement.

County supervisors have said they hope to pay no more than $325,000 annually in lease payments.

During Monday's supervisors' meeting, Henson questioned Johnson briefly about whether the agency handled the search for a contractor correctly or whether the county had enough safeguards in place to protect taxpayers' interests.

"Don't question my integrity, don't you dare question my integrity," Johnson snapped before board Attorney Angela Turner-Ford intervened.

Board President and District 4 Supervisor Shelton Deanes cut Henson off, saying he'd had his say in previous meetings and the board is not going to "continue all this back and forth. This here is what gives old supervisors a heart attack... we were put here to hear you, but we're not going to do it over and over," Deanes told Henson before moving on to other agenda items.

Henson has been an outspoken critic of the lease-purchase route and spent almost an hour questioning board members last Thursday.

"Is the budget going to be able to cover it or are you going to have to raise taxes. I can't afford any more taxes," he said, slamming what he said were 72 tax notices down on the supervisors' meeting table. "My point is whether you are getting the most bang for your buck. If it ends up being $4 million, that's $400,000 a year. Can the county handle that without a tax increase. What about the operating expenses? That's what I want to know."

In response to a suggestion the project could run as much as $5 million, Chancery Court Clerk Amy Berry, who acts as clerk for the board, said supervisors wouldn't stand for that.

"If that happens, they will send them (the lease-purchase agency and construction manager) back to the drawing board to get it within our budget ... we are trying to look ahead. Hopefully there won't be a tax increase or anything significant," Berry stated.

Board Attorney Angela Turner Ford also rejected Henson's suggestion the supervisors were going the lease-purchase route to avoid a public referendum.

"No sir," she said when Henson asked if that was the prime motivation. "I disagree," she continued when he pushed the issue. "The main reason is to help local governments better service their debt."

Henson continued, saying signing a 12-year lease was no different than issuing bonds because the county has no exit clause if it runs into financial trouble or changes priorities five years down the road.

The county is awaiting final paperwork from Community Counseling Services to take the next step on obtaining the 2.3-acre site for $495,000.

The county is working with Columbus-based Pryor and Morrow Architects on plans for the building. Henson also said county residents and businesses are being cheated because supervisors have no control over how much Benchmark will make.

"They are aware of local concerns. Local companies will get a chance to bid on parts of the project," attorney Lucien Bourgeois, who is advising the county on the leasing, told the board. "Our main intent is we want to make sure businesses in Clay and surrounding counties get a fair shot and these contracts and work," stated District 2 Supervisor Luke Lummus.

State law allows the leases to run up to 20 years, but supervisors have discussed the shorter 12-year term to get the building paid off more quickly. Preliminary estimates have put the building's renovation at $2.5 million to $3 million. If the total is $3 million and the county pays $325,000 a year for 12 years, that would be $3.9 million or just over 4 percent interest rate. County leaders have said they think they can get the rate below that, but it at least provides a starting point for planning and discussions as the project proceeds.

"These are just general guidelines for the discussions to give the supervisors and framework to even think about this. They are mindful of what it means to the county and want to protect taxpayers and get the most for their money," Berry said.

GTPDD's Johnson says he hopes to have plans signed off on by the end of January, cost estimates soon thereafter and a contract with the county by early spring. Construction would take about a year.

The renovation would include three courtrooms, secure holding cells for inmates, office space, meeting rooms, Election Commission offices, and other facilities. Chancery Court and tax offices would remain in the existing 60-year-old Courthouse. Some annex space likely would be torn down to improve parking and add green space.

In other business Monday, supervisors:

-- Accepted the low bid of $1.259 per gallon from Starkville LP Gas to supply propane to the county's highway department barns, voting precincts and other county buildings for the next year. The current provider, MidSouth Propane, bid $1.79 per gallon. The county will save money this year. It currently is paying $1.495 a gallon for propane.

-- Opened dozens of annual bids for materials and supplies and will review and award them at the board's Thursday meeting.