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Citizens wanted to know the costs of courthouse square revitalization

As soon as Kevin P. Lewis of Landry and Lewis Architects of Hattiesburg finished his 30-minute presentation on Thursday night in the courthouse courtroom to about 100 county residents on plans for a proposed $15.4 million courthouse square revitalization project, the first question from the first citizen to ask a question, Russell Foster, was, “How much is this going to cost me in extra taxes on my house.”

Foster’s question was directed by Supervisor and board president Anthony Hales, Sr., who moderated the meeting, to County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin, Jr. Said Hales, “Worst case scenario, give us what in your best estimation this would cost us if the board decides to go forward with this. In other words, what would it cost taxpayers if it were financed through a millage increase?”

Lumpkin said he ran some figures based on $12 million, not the $15.4 million estimated project costs, at 5.4 percent for 30 years and it would take an extra three mills to generate $900,000 a year to pay off the loan. He arrived at the $12 million figure, he said, by eliminating some optional storage space in the attics of the proposed annexes and a contingency fee.

He said that the millage rate could be adjusted down during the pay-off period if assessed valuation went up and produced more revenue per mill. He said the three mills would translate into about an additional $30 in taxes per year on a house valued at $100,000.

Thursday’s meeting was held after several residents on Monday said they believe county residents and taxpayers should be fully informed concerning the proposed project and after resident Jeff Smith questioned supervisors on how they would fund it. County resident Donna Knezevich said she wanted to see a cost-savings reconciliation before she would favor the project.

In relation to the funding, Lewis said the architectural firm had prepared a funding request for the county for an historical grant to repair and refurbish the old courthouse by itself in another project. He said $5 million had been requested to fund that courthouse rehabilitation.

He said the costs of rehabilitating the old courthouse was not included in the $15.4 estimated costs of new construction.

From the pictures presented by Lewis of the deteriorating courthouse and other properties the county is using, there was no question in the audience about the need to do something.

Said Supervisor J. Patrick Lee, “As you can see, the time has come. We have to step up to the plate and do something on our watch. I wish it had not happened on our terms in office, but it has. We have got to move forward.”

Said Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith, “This is all preliminary. We have not made a decision on what to do. We might even take this plan one building at a time, but as you can see we have got to do something.”

However, the question remained that in such budgetary constraints all governments face today, how will it be done.

Lewis’ presentation showed facilities that were in what one audience member described as “deplorable” conditions. Leaking roofs, pealing paint, dilapidated bathroom facilities, outdated and outmoded wiring and electrical systems, inadequate storage space and overuse and overcrowding of available space, and no adequate and code level access to the facilities by the disabled, a violation of federal regulations.

The presentation included a slide of a court order showing that the county is under an injunction to make its facilities ADA accessible within a three-year time limit.

“We have no choice; we must comply with this order,” said Hales.

Supervisors Hales, Smith, Lee and Joyce Culpepper were present at the meeting. Supervisor Hudson Holliday did not attend due to a scheduling conflict.

The audience seemed about evenly divided, judged by the applause, between citizens who favored the project and those who seemed to not want the county to go in debt over the project.

Citizen Larry Waggoner of Henleyfield Community said this is not the time to be borrowing $15 million when state and local governmental entities are broke and the U.S. government is running a $13 trillion dollar deficit. “This board cannot be seriously considering taking on $15 million in debt in this economic environment,” said Waggoner.

Another resident, pointing to the courthouse itself, said an earlier generation had built the current courthouse when a World War was going on, and citizens had used it for 80 years. He referred to the current courthouse, which was constructed in 1918.

Both Hales and Lewis said the old courthouse was not going to be torn down as rumored earlier this week. “We could not legally tear it down. If we did, we would go to jail,” said Lewis. The courthouse has been designated as a state historical monument and cannot be altered in anyway without state approval.

Picayune attorney Gerald Cruthird said he supported the efforts of supervisors in trying to go forward with the project. “We have waited a long time for modern facilities, and I want to see you go forward with this project in Poplarville. I think Pearl River Co. deserves this,” he said.

Several speakers said they were willing to pay additional taxes for the project, but some others said they did not want any new taxes.

The project calls for revitalizing a four-block area that would make up the courthouse square. North and south annexes would be constructed and would effectively double the square footage. It would centralize and consolidate county personnel and services, now spread out all over Poplarville.

County Chancery Court Clerk David Earl Johnson said he would “be proud to see the new facilities.”

Said Johnson, “I want to be proud of my county, and I think this project would give us pride. I am willing to pay the additional taxes it would take.”