Meridian Star

January 8, 2013

Questions arise over city-owned property

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     The cost of a downtown building owned by the city has caused a slight stir among some citizens who have questioned whether it is undervalued.

    The city of Meridian owns the former Bellsouth building, 1827 23rd Ave., which Chartre Companies Ltd., plans to purchase and renovate for a 26-unit market rate apartment building.

    The Meridian City Council recently approved a resolution of intent for a tax break and Chartre asked for a similar break from county taxes for seven years. The tax exemption would not apply to school taxes and would only apply to improvements made on the building.

    Chartre representative David Kelly spoke with the Lauderdale Board of Supervisors on Thursday during a work session and discussed plans for the building.

    At the Monday board meeting, District 4 Supervisor Joe Norwood said he had received phone calls over the weekend about the value of the building, which Kelly had said on Thursday was approximately $120,000.

    "How did you arrive at the $120,000 value on the building," Norwood asked.

    "I believe that was the appraisal, minus the abatement cost," Kelly said. "I don't remember the exact number but I think it was somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000."

    City of Meridian Community Development Director Connie Royal said the price of the building was arrived upon by the usual process. There were three appraisals conducted and the price was set by the average of the three.

    "It was handled through Ed Skipper's department (City Finance Department) and followed all rules and regulations the city uses to get appraisals," Royal said. "The $120,000 approximately, is before the asbestos abatement."

    Royal said she did not have the exact amount of the abatement with her at the meeting, but the city will have to get rid of the asbestos in the building before selling it. She said the city will get the appraisals to the county. Royal later added that the appraisal is for the building, not the courtyard.

    One of the callers, Norwood said, had said if the property is valued at $120,000, the Board of Supervisors should refund taxpayer's property taxes by 50 percent.

    Norwood said these types of exemptions have been done before.

    "I would like to remind the public that on two other occasions ... we did approve this same type of agreement with downtown apartments on Front Street and I think we did with the Rosenbaum property," Norwood said. "I personally do not agree with it but it is the law and I will have to, I guess, follow the letter of the law even though, referring back to one of the calls I had, this is what we call a true form of corporate welfare."

    District 2 Supervisor Wayman Newell said he too had received calls about the matter.

    Kelly acknowledged that some people might consider $120,000 a low price for the property, but it isn't if one considers the amount of work that will have to be done to renovate the building into apartments. He has estimated that it will take between $4 million and $5 million to renovate the building.

    "We're willing to do that. We think there is a market here. We spent a long time studying it," Kelly said. "We feel pretty certain that we can fill 26 units by the end of the time period it takes to construct this. We should be ready for occupancy in September. That's our goal."

    Supervisors voted 4-0 in favor of a motion of intent to grant the tax exemption. Norwood abstained.

    During the public comment period of the meeting, Raymond Huffmaster asked why the price of the city-owned property is $120,000.

    "Something's out of order there. We need a copy of the appraisal, is what we need," Huffmaster said. "There's dwelling houses within four blocks of that building for $200,000."

    The Meridian Star has requested a copy of the appraisals from City Hall.

    County officials started the new year by electing new officers for the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors. Joe Norwood, District 4 supervisor and former board president, nominated District 1 Supervisor Hank Florey as the new president. There were no other nominations and the motion passed unanimously.

    "I appreciate very much my fellow supervisors, I thank you so much for the opportunity to serve for 2013 as president of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors," Florey said. "I don't take this lightly. This is a responsibility that I look forward to. I have done it before but this is special at this time in my life and my family. Thank you very much for the faith and trust. So help me God, this trust will not be breached. I just want you to know I'll work long and hard for the betterment of Lauderdale County."

    The board then elected District 3 Supervisor Josh Todd as vice-president.

    "It has been an honor to work with you four," Todd said. "It's been a real exciting time in my life and in my family's life. I've learned a lot from you. I'm looking forward to 2013. Thank you all for your vote."

    Later Florey commended Norwood for his term as president.

    "Joe, you set the bar high," Florey said. "We appreciate that very much. You worked long and hard. I know you've been the last one to leave here a lot of nights. I thank you for what you've done for this community. Your service is very much appreciated."

    Florey then presented Norwood with a plaque featuring a gavel.

    Also, the board unanimously voted to re-employ Joe McCraney, county administrator, Engineering Plus, as the firm handling the county's state aid road engineering, Harris Wilder, county road manager, and the law firm of Hammack, Barry, Thaggard, and May LLP, to represent the county.

    The board approved a request from Rob Seal, Lauderdale County Agri-Center director, to appoint Steve Parker to the Agri-Center's advisory board.

    The board accepted the title to the building that houses the Veteran's Service Center, 1827 23rd Ave. The Red Cross gave the building to the county and agreed to allow parking to continue at  another Red Cross Building across the street  as long as Red Cross owns the building, which is up for sale.

    Todd said he and Florey recently examined the building and found it to be in good condition, adding that if the county had had to vacate the building, the cost of finding another building for veterans' services would have been high.

    Joshua J. Joachim, chief operating officer for the American Red Cross in Mississippi, said: "We've partnered with the county with this facility for years now. It's an opportunity to expand that partnership and obviously to strengthen our services to veterans as well as strengthen our services to the community."

    Florey said the donation helps the county because there are many veterans here.

    "We appreciate this very much from the American Red Cross," Florey said. "It's a big boost to us."

    Newell said he has had several calls about when the county will resume tearing down condemned houses. He said that the weather has been too wet to carry the debris to the landfill, but as things dry out, work will resume.

    Newell said one of the priorities of the board this year will be getting a road outlet for the Central Industrial Park.

    "All of that traffic that comes out of Central Industrial Park comes back down to Hawkin's Crossing and into the busiest intersection in Meridian, in my opinion — there at 20 and 59, Highway 19," Newell said.

    This will be on the list of funding requests the board will take to Mississippi's Congressional delegation in Washington, he said.

    In closing remarks, Todd said he hopes people looking for road work to be done will be patient.

    "I know that we have a lot of potholes, but because of the rain and cold weather, pretty much anything we put in there right now is not going to hold it," Todd said. "The men are working as hard and as fast as they can. Just be patient. We are trying to get them."