By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Concerns over the $14 million bond issue passed earlier this year has led a local attorney and his clients to seek more information about how county officials arrived at the number.
In a 3-2 vote on April 1, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution of intent to pass the bond issue. Every subsequent vote on the matters relating to the bond issue have all been the same with District One Supervisor Hank Florey, District Three Supervisor Josh Todd and District Four Supervisor Joe Norwood voting in favor.
District Two Supervisor Wayman Newell and District Five Supervisor Kyle Rutledge have voted against the bond issue.
The bond issue is to pay $3.8 million to build a 32,000 square foot sports complex that will house a four-court gymnasium with bleachers at Highland Park. Also, $3.5 million of the bonds will go to the county-owned fields of the West Lauderdale Youth Association; $2.5 million will go to the county-owned Clarkdale Community Recreation Association park construction, and the remainder, $4.2 million, will go to fund a renovation of the Circuit Court courtroom at the courthouse.
Another vote is scheduled to take place at Monday's board meeting when the board votes on the actual sale of $3.2 million of the bonds. The board took the first step in approving those bonds last month.
The issue prompted a failed petition drive calling for a county-wide vote on the bond issue. During a Board of Supervisors work session on Thursday, attorney Stephen Wilson voiced concerns about the bond issue and the lack of information about the costs of each project.
"I represent a number of people who had signed a petition calling for a referendum on the $14 million bond," Wilson said. "I will be filing papers in court when the appropriate time comes."
Among Wilson's clients regarding the bond issue is Tommy Williams, whom Wilson said had filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the county to get information about how the county arrived at the $14 million price tag.
"In order to find out some of this information, Mr. Williams had filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking some documents that related to the bond," Wilson said. "In school my teacher called it 'showing the work.'"
Wilson, Williams and others met and reviewed documents at the office of Terrell Temple, county engineer. However, when they went to the county annex building to review additional documents regarding the bond issue, they did not find what they were looking for, Wilson said.
"When we came here, the only thing we were provided with were meeting minutes and the petition calling for an election," Wilson said. "Failure to provide this information is pretty detrimental to you all. Open government is an important aspect for anybody regardless of party affiliation."
Wilson said he has not seen anything that gives any detail on itemized projected cost on each project.
"What we want to look at involves the projects themselves," Wilson said. "There hasn't been any homework that I've seen that show what the actual costs are going to be. There have been some architectural drawings but if you all have any estimates on what it's going to be, we'd like to see it. We don't want to have another City Hall project."
Wilson was referring to the renovation of Meridian City Hall which began at an estimate of less than $10 million and ended up costing about $25 million with interest.
Hank Florey, board president, said courthouse renovations would not be done all at once, but a little bit at a time, since a study last year found that four county buildings, the courthouse, the annex building, the Ulmer Building, and the former bus stop that now houses tourism, would need nearly $40 million in renovations.
"I've been in the construction business all my life," Florey said. "You don't know how much anything costs until you open bids."
About the construction of a building to hold a gymnasium at Highland Park in Meridian, Wilson said he is not aware of any vote by the Meridian City Council to approve such a project.
"I haven't seen any indication that they are willing to pick up or set aside any money to maintain it, to staff it, to pay the power bill or perform routine maintenance," Wilson said.
The ball park projects for West Lauderdale Youth Association and the Clarkdale Community Recreation Association also present problems, he said.
"The same questions come up," WIlson said. "Who is going to maintain them? Who is going to staff them? Who is going to pay for the power? Who is going to cut the grass? Who owns the facilities once they are done? Have you all got that in your budget if the county is going to do it?"
Wilson said he believed that people would feel better about the project if they knew how the county came up with the figures.
Wilson said the only documents that were provided by the county were the meeting minutes from various board meetings and the petition to call for an election with the 1,500 or so signatures. Estimates and cost projections were not available.
Todd told Wilson that the West Lauderdale Youth Association does have a plan and he offered to share it with him.
Wilson said he basically asked for three things; for the county to fully comply with the Freedom of Information Act request; to put the information on the website where the public can see how it will be spent; and for the three members voting in favor of the bond and against calling for an election to reconsider the bond.