Costs continue to grow for the decaying Lauderdale County Courthouse, with no fixed timeline or estimated total cost yet determined to replace or rebuild it.
Lauderdale County taxpayers have spent more than $148,000 for preliminary construction costs since the summer of 2017, but the bulk of that work hasn’t addressed the peeling paint, black mold, exposed wires, leaking water or cramped working conditions that have been called unsafe and dangerous in grand jury reports.
Money, paid through LPK Architects, has gone to companies for 3D scans, consulting fees and asbestos investigations while supervisors wait to hear decisions from the United States Postal Service and Mississippi Department of Archives.
Both agencies yield control over large portions of the project: renovations to the historic courthouse, built in 1905, must be approved by MDAH and the Postal Service owns the old federal courthouse on 9th Street, which the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors would like to buy as part of the solution.
Meanwhile, dozens of courthouse workers report daily to the courthouse, maintenance workers check the main courtroom every morning for fallen plaster and 10th Circuit Court grand juries complain about foul odors and unsafe conditions almost monthly.
Since the summer of 2017, the $148,000 has gone primarily to LPK Architects and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction, with nearly $100,000 spent within the first 10 months. Before that, supervisors spent $85,000 on a courthouse study from architect Belinda Stewart.
The remaining $48,000 spent by LPK in August 2018 and October 2018 went to the following companies, according to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request:
– $18,671 to Thomas H. Walker Consultants with a $3,500 per month retainer for five months and $1,100 in travel expenses.
– $10,700 to Pickering Firm for asbestos, lead-based paint and indoor air quality/ mold investigation as well as sample collection and roof repair.
– $17,700 to Clearpoint Consulting Engineers, PA for 3D scanning and modeling the Lauderdale County Courthouse.
For Bob Luke, of LPK Architects, the current board of supervisors has already taken a big step by recognizing and acting on the project.
"They finally made the decision that we need to do something," Luke said.
While progress seems slow, Luke pointed out that many behind-the-scenes planning sessions had cemented a path forward, eliminating previous options such as temporarily relocating to the newly vacated JC Penney store at Bonita Lakes Mall.
In late 2017 and early 2018, the board seemed committed to moving courthouse workers out of unsafe working conditions to the mall for up to three years during courthouse construction.
Preliminary estimates suggested it cost about $5,000 per month or $60,000 per year – less than half the approximate $124,000 the county spent on utilities for the courthouse in 2017, County Administrator Chris Lafferty said in January 2018.
Previously, the board had discussed relocating to the old Village Fair Mall site, but nixed the idea because of environmental concerns.
"Numerous people offered different sorts of buildings," Luke said, naming the Bonita Lakes mall as one vacant space. "But they (the supervisors) made a commitment that they needed to be in downtown."
Luke, who also leads the City of Meridian's Master Plan for the city's downtown, emphasized the importance of having government offices anchor the area.
"A government center in downtown keeps downtown thriving," Luke said.
The Federal Courthouse
Supervisors have expressed interest in the federal courthouse since as early as 2012, when the U.S. court system closed the courtroom.
Then-board president Joe Norwood told The Meridian Star the board would travel to Washington D.C. to stress its desire for the space to congressional representatives.
"We are out of space with all the records we have to keep," Norwood, the representative for District 4, said in 2012. "We also are going to be renovating the county court house so it would be nice to have a place for the circuit and chancery courts and staff to go."
One difficulty that frustrates supervisors is the lethargic communication from the United States Postal Service, which requests that all communication come via email. In the fall, a Postal Service spokesperson confirmed discussions were taking place, but said no other comment could be made.
Jonathan Wells, finishing his first term as the supervisor for District 1, has named the courthouse as one of the board's priorities during his tenure as board president in 2019.
"I don't know if anyone has gone as far as we have with (USPS)," Wells said. "We may have been entertaining it for eight years but we've been asking and pushing for it for three years."
When asked about how long supervisors would wait to secure the federal courthouse, Wells said they would have to consider it as a group.
"But if it's not done in eight, 10 months, let's look at what we're doing," Wells said.
While supervisors hope to save money by moving to the federal courthouse, Luke said more analysis is needed.
"We've looked at the federal courthouse on a preliminary basis (but) we need to look at it on a much deeper level," Luke said. "That's one of the best options we've got. The courtroom is in great shape. So many of those offices will work for the legal system. And it will be much cheaper to renovate than build a new courthouse."
Walker's role as consultant was to help secure the federal courthouse by connecting supervisors with the appropriate parties. Walker previously worked with the General Services Administration in Atlanta.
"He was facilitating getting us in front of the right people," Luke said.
Removing the jail
Another roadblock to the project is the jail that sits atop the courthouse. The first three courthouse stories, built in 1905, are still open to the public and provide office space for the Circuit Court, the Chancery Court, the District Attorney's Office and others.
The fourth, fifth and sixth stories, inaccessible to the public, were added in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration Project and held defendants until 1998, when a Department of Justice lawsuit forced the county to build a new jail.
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Supervisors attribute much of the water sealing problems to the WPA addition and want to remove it. But the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which must approve those changes, has been reluctant to grant permission.
"My professional recommendation: get it off," Luke said. "It was poorly constructed and will continue to destroy the building below."
MDAH pushed the supervisors to use grant money from their department to put out a Request for Proposals for a Comprehensive Exterior Condition Assessment, which supervisors approved advertising for in November.
"It's art deco, even if it's ugly art deco, so they would like to see it stay," Wells said. "And when we said that we think that's where we think the water comes from they said we should use our grant money (from them) for a study."
The county received only one proposal, from Waggoner Engineering, for the assessment, which would include a recommendation for removing the jail. MDAH told the county they needed more proposals and made the county reject Waggoner's proposal and start over.
"I do not think Waggoner will submit another bid," Chris Lafferty, the county administrator, said during a Thursday work session. "The bids are based on the hourly rate and experience. And that's what (MDAH) said Waggoner was lacking."
Wayman Newell, the supervisor for District 2, expressed a concern that the county would receive no bids for the project, to which Lafferty said MDAH had promised to notify companies they've used in the past for courthouse assessments, some of which are based outside of Mississippi.
"And we could be using that grant money and moving forward already," Wells said Thursday.
Last week, during an interview about the courthouse, Wells acknowledged the costs of working on such an historic building and coordinating with MDAH.
"It's going to be expensive to satisfy their requests," Wells said.
Luke said work was ongoing.
"We're working with (MDAH) to see what they'll allow us to do to the building," Luke said.
Other county-owned properties
The overall plan for the Lauderdale County courthouse includes charting a future path for the Lauderdale County Annex Building as well as the attached jail. About half of the Annex Building, as well as the jailhouse floors of the courthouse, are home to millions of files related to county business and the courthouse.
While supervisors haven't publicly committed to plans for the Annex Building, Luke said that private developers had expressed interest in purchasing and renovating the building, similar to plans for the Threefoot Building, the high-rise downtown building being converted into a Courtyard by Marriott.
For now, the Annex Building houses the Board of Supervisors, the Justice Court and county's Archives and History department. Supervisors moved the Tax Assessor's Office into the building and out of the courthouse but moved the Drug Court offices into the vacant courthouse space.
"We have not changed direction; we have not slowed down," Luke said about finding space for various county offices outside of the courthouse. "In the meantime, we've broken parts of it down."
Mississippi State University's Extension Service takes up one floor of the Annex Building and supervisors have decided to free up the space by moving the department to the Lauderdale County Agri-Center. The county also decided to move the Tax Collector's Office into the vacant Hooper's Building, also owned by the county, one block from the courthouse.
"Those are two examples of ways we're able to chip away at the problem," Luke said. "We hope to advertise for bids in the next few weeks."
On Thursday, Wells pushed Lafferty to include advertising for bids on those two projects, which Luke said had already been designed, at the supervisors' board meeting on Monday.
"There's been a lot of behind-the-scenes phone calls and negotiations about moving departments," Well said last week. "I think the plan is to try to stay in downtown so it's within a few blocks of each other... we've looked at a handful of (other) buildings and frankly didn't think it was cost effective."
Plans for the space in 2019
Luke and Wells said that both the Tax Collector and Extension Service offices would relocate, moving one office out of the courthouse and creating space for another department to move into the Annex Building.
"In the process, it's cost us time and money but I honestly believe that time and money will pay out in the end when it's done right," Wells said. "I know I say this a lot, but we've really been focusing on being able to eat the elephant one bite at a time."
Luke said the process is slow because supervisors want to be as efficient as possible with taxpayer money.
"It's beginning to come together. It's just painfully slow," Luke said. "We've always got to get the answer to this before we can get the answer for that."
The paint continues to peel, the mold continues to grow, the bills continue to mount, and L…
Luke said that a full cost for the project couldn't be estimated until the county gets answers from Archives and History and the Postal Service.
In May 2016, supervisors paid Eupora architect Belinda Stewart $85,000 to develop various plans for the courthouse, resulting in a 66-page study.
One of Stewart's proposals envisioned using the federal courthouse and putting the Annex Building back in the private sector. She estimated it would cost $44.87 million, with the county investing $28.37 million and private developers investing $16.5 million into the Annex Building.
"This board has decided, 'We're going to take the neglect of the last 30 years and find a solution,' " Wells said. "I know people really wonder if we're sincere because it's taking so long and that's one of the frustrating things of government: we're slow. It's just an arduous process."
Wells acknowledged the frustrating lack of visible progress, not only for the supervisors but also the county's residents.
"I hope that within the next year people can see the whole picture," Wells said.