Federal building could be part of permanent courthouse solution

Dave Bohrer / The Meridian Star

The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors are considering purchasing the Federal Building, upper right, selling the County Annex, lower left, and renovating the current courthouse, lower center. Over the last several months, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors has spent nearly $100,000 in taxpayers' money for the county courthouse project, which according to some estimates could cost taxpayers up to $40 million.

The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors are considering the potential purchase of the federal courthouse, which houses the post office on 9th Street in Meridian, as part of a permanent solution to the poor condition of the Lauderdale County Courthouse.

District 1 Supervisor Jonathan Wells clarified Monday a report that appeared in The Meridian Star on Saturday, noting the county would permanently locate a few offices in the federal building. 

"Really only a handful," Wells said.

Wells said he couldn't identify which departments could be moved, but he said parking and space would be taken into consideration.

The departments would share the building with the United States Postal Service, which would lease a part of the building from the county, Wells said. 

"The post office will remain there because we think it's vital to downtown," Wells said.

Negotiations between USPS and the county could take another month, Wells said last week. Negotiations include a fair leasing price, for the post office, and a purchase price for the building. 

"Like I said last week, if we can get this for pennies on the dollar then we'll save taxpayers money," Wells said. 

Supervisors first inquired about the federal courthouse as a solution to the Lauderdale County Courthouse in September of 2016, shortly after the U.S. federal court system announced it would be closing the Meridian office. 

Securing the federal courthouse will be only one phase of the plan, with supervisors addressing two additional projects: rehabilitating and expanding the Lauderdale County Courthouse and selling the Lauderdale County Annex Building, Wells said. 

Problems with the Lauderdale County Courthouse first became apparent in 1977 but maintenance was delayed and conditions deterioriated. Numerous grand jury reports have noted black mold, peeling paint, overloaded electrical outlets, cramped spaces and other safety concerns.

The project will cost the county upward of $30 million.

The supervisors considered a temporary relocation to the now-vacant J.C. Penney anchor store at the Bonita Lakes Mall, but backed off those plans earlier this year.

Wells said supervisors had discussed adding a wing to the current courthouse to the East, closing the county-owned portion of 20th Avenue between 5th Street and 6th Street to accommodate the new wing.

Supervisors have also explored the idea of selling the Annex building, "especially with downtown activity," Wells said. Currently, the Annex houses the offices for supervisors and several other county departments. 

"Once we get an answer on (the federal courthouse) we should soon get some boots on the ground, as I like to say, or some action," Wells said. "Nobody sees negotiations but we have been working on this."

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