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Supervisors discuss proposed courthouse square plans, again

Discussion of the $15.4 million proposed renovation of courthouse square here won’t go away. It just keeps popping up at every board of supervisors meeting.

Two residents posed questions to supervisors about the project again on Monday.

One resident asked supervisors when they plan to make a decision on the project. Board President and District One Supervisor Anthony Hales, Sr. said no definite date had been selected for a decision.

Another resident said that he believed most citizens have not been informed properly and that District Three Supervisor Hudson Holliday considers it already a “done deal.” Hales pointed to the public information hearing and Holliday replied bluntly to the resident’s statement.

The discussion Laos brought a blunt response from District Five Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith about where he stands on the proposal.

Supervisors J. Patrick Lee and Joyce Culpepper made no comment on where they stand, although Culpepper, who is a former employee of Movie Star, said that the huge Movie Star facility on U.S. Highway 11 across from the college just vacated by the company, would not be amenable to refurbishing because of deterioration of the facility. She said it would cost too much money to convert it into office space.

The issue also prompted a March 18 letter to the Picayune Item from Jeff Smith critical of the size of the project. Smith regularly attends board meetings and is active in county issues. In his letter Smith said he would favor improving courthouse square as the county was able financially to do so but did not favor a full-bore $15.4 million project. After a recent board meeting he said, “We don’t have the money. We are broke.”

The Item in its March 16 issue endorsed the project.

The board of supervisors unveiled the project at its March 7 meeting, sponsored a public forum and information hearing about it on March 10, discussed it again at its March 14 meeting, and it came up again for discussion on Monday.

Holliday said has made no secret about where he stands on the project.

He told the resident questioning his stance that in 1918 when the current courthouse was constructed, that citizens stepped up and made the sacrifice. “Many of them rode to town on a mule, most probably did not have cars and all the roads were dirt, but they stepped up and built a courthouse that we have used for 90 years. Now it’s our time and turn. It has been put on our plate, and, yes, when I am satisfied where the money is coming from, it’s a done deal for me. I can only speak for myself, not the rest of the board.”

District Five Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith said that he would favor remodeling the courthouse and adding one of the two proposed annexes, but not the full $15 million project.

Both Hales and Holliday said they favor the project, mostly as proposed by the architect. With Hales and Holliday favoring the project, it will take only one more yes vote to pass it.

The project would see two new annexes added, one on the north end and the other on the south end next to the courthouse, the current annex behind the courthouse would be torn down, and that block turned into a parking lot.

The historic courthouse would be remodeled later with a $5 million historical state grant. 

The proposed project would expand the courthouse complex into a consolidated arrangement covering four blocks surrounding the courthouse, and would effectively double courthouse space.

In reply to a question of whether or not the issue would be put up for vote, Hales said he was not in favor of the public voting on it. The question is whether it is required by state law to be put to a public vote. He said that is what supervisors had been elected to do, make the hard decisions. Hales said that he knows remodeling and refurbishing had been proposed, but he added that might cost even more and that “you still have to find the money to do it, you still have to generate revenue.

“I have been on this board for 16 years, and before that I served on the Poplarville city board for 10 years. I know what we are facing. There is no easy solution. . .This needs to be done. I know everybody doesn’t hold it in as high a priority as this board does, but we as a board see the problem every day and have to address it,” said Hales.

“Fixing up these old buildings is not going to serve our need for additional space, and if we are to get more space, the only alternative we face now is to go out and get another old building and spend money to fix it up and maintain it,” said Hales.

Holliday said, “We are going to look at how we are going to pay this money back. That is our fiduciary responsibility, but if we can afford to build this, we are going to build it, if it is up to me. But I don’t speak for the rest of the board.

“We just can’t sit here and do nothing. And financially I am a very conservative guy. You can ask anyone on this board about that. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. If we could get some people to stop from stuffing crack up their noses or cooking crystal meth, we might not need these big courtrooms and jails. But in the real world that is not the case. We need this project. Some people don’t like government; our forefathers wanted a small government; I see it as a necessary evil. People like me are going to pay a lot on that courthouse. But it is not about me or you, it’s about us, and about what we give back to this community.”

Those attending the March 10 public information meeting at the courthouse seemed to agree that there is need for more space and for consolidating county services, but there was a difference of agreement over how much the county can afford.

County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin, Jr., said that funding a pared-down $12 million courthouse square expansion would cost the average county taxpayer less than $30 additionally a year to generate about $900,000 annually to pay for the project for 20 years.

Supervisors, following the discussion, went into an executive session and then adjourned to next Monday’s regular first-of-the-month meeting at 9 a.m. in the courthouse annex on Julia Street.