Lauderdale County courthouse project could cost additional $102K

Bill Graham / The Meridian Star

The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors approved up to an additional $102,319 to Snyder Environmental and Construction Inc. at a meeting Monday for a project to remove asbestos from the old Village Fair Mall site and demolish the building.

The cost overruns for asbestos removal from the old Village Fair Mall site on 22nd Avenue in Meridian are disturbing, but not surprising.

The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors approved up to an additional $102,319 to Snyder Environmental and Construction Inc. at its meeting Monday. That is on top of the board acceptance of a bid in January from Snyder to remove asbestos from the mall and demolish the building at a cost of $1,708,820.

The need for the extra money was stated after asbestos material was discovered on 294 columns at the mall, according to District 5 Supervisor Kyle Rutledge. The county had agreed to pay PPM Consultants, Inc. for environmental consulting and asbestos abatement planning.

It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last cost overrun on this project to build a complex that will house county offices and courthouse space. Earlier, a plan to save money by having county work crews handle the demolition was scrapped. The county, also, has paid for other studies on the courthouse project that have been abandoned.

What concerns us is the lack of a concise plan and focus, dating back four years when the board began to study how to repair or replace the well-documented deteriorating and dangerous conditions at the historic downtown courthouse.

In December 2016, Belinda Stewart Architects produced a $75,000 Lauderdale County Courthouse Feasibility Study that listed numerous scenarios, timelines, cost estimates and pros and cons for each specific idea. Costs ranged between $30,000 million and $40,000 million depending on the option.

Rather than choosing one of those plans and moving forward, the sticker-shocked board scrapped those plans, too, and chose an a-la-carte approach. We have been spending a hundred thousand dollars here, a million there ever since and meanwhile workers remain in a dangerous courthouse with relief years and undetermined dollars away.

Last fall, the supervisors announced their intent to build a new courthouse complex at the old Village Fair Mall site. The county purchased the 39-acre property off 22nd Avenue in June 2019 for $1.25 million as supervisors gushed at the great deal they had made – an offer too good to refuse.

We are reminded of the teenager who tells his parents about the great deal he made on an old Chevy pickup truck, only to find after the purchase it needed a new transmission, the engine block was cracked and the frame was bent.

We all want our county workers and visitors in a safer building as soon as possible and we do appreciate that we at least seem to be moving forward.

While we have been critical of the supervisors’ approach, we do appreciate they recognize the problem and the need to fix it.

But the public deserves an itemized estimate of how much all of this is going to cost and how we will pay for it, rather than what seems to be an open-checkbook approach that is vulnerable to surprises at each step in the project.

Supervisor Jonathan Wells provided a rough estimate in October of $35 million to build the new facility. We still don’t know whether that comes as the middle price tag between Stewart’s high and low or whether there is a specific cost analysis and plan.

Especially at a time when tax revenue will be depleted by the COVID-19 crisis, Lauderdale County taxpayers deserve a focused plan that diminishes those unpleasant surprises.

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