County gets more input into new justice center

The Pass It On building will soon become expanded court space for Clay County
Staff Writer

By the end of January, Clay County leaders could get a final look at plans for a new county justice center. And the construction company that will oversee the project has agreed to let county supervisors have a central role in taking and opening bids for the project.

Supervisors approved the purchase of the former Jitney Jungle/Pass It On building Tuesday for $495,000 from the Regional Foundation for Mental Health and Mental Retardation via Community Counseling Services. Clay County Supervisors Attorney Angela Turner-Ford said closing on the purchase would come soon.

Then paperwork will be finalized for the property to be transferred to the Golden Triangle Public Buildings Corp., which will finance the construction and lease the building back to the county in a lease-purchase agreement.

Turner-Ford says she expects all that paperwork to be finalized by sometime next month.

The county plans to renovate the 25,000-square-foot building, which sits on 2.302 acres on Main Street, into offices, courtrooms and related space for Circuit and Justice courts.

The county hopes to lease the property for 12 years for no more than $325,000 a year. Under current estimates, it may be less than that.

"Right now the estimates are at $2 million to $2.5 million, but things change. But supervisors have been very aware of costs and getting the most for taxpayer dollars," Chancery Court Clerk Amy Berry said of the design being handled by Roger Pryor of Pryor and Morrow Architects in Columbus.

"We are about 95 percent through with the plans. We should get them back for final review and approval at the end of this month, at least that's what we hope," added Berry, who, as clerk for the Board of Supervisors, has been actively involved in the planning process since it began last summer.

The biggest change is Benchmark Construction's agreement to allow supervisors to be involved in taking, opening and reviewing the bids. That has been one of the biggest issues for critics such as Clay County developer Mike Henson and others who worry the lease-purchase process takes control out of the hands of local leaders and offers few safeguards for taxpayers.

"The supervisors told them how important it is that local people be involved in the process, opening the bids, everything," Berry said. "They've agreed to come in February and do that. That will make a big difference."

The county hopes to start work on the project in April and have in completed within a year to 15 months.