OUR VIEW: Delay in relocating courthouse workers dangerous, potentially more expensive

File photo

Conditions inside the courthouse remain dismal as supervisors continue to deliberate about its future.

The paint continues to peel, the mold continues to grow, the bills continue to mount, and Lauderdale County supervisors still ask employees and visitors to continue to endure unsafe conditions at the decayed Lauderdale County Courthouse.

Since December, 2016, the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors has authorized more than $230,000 in fees to Belinda Stewart Architects, LPK Architects and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company, along with $15,500 for an 11-man junket last February to Washington, D.C. for advice about fixing or replacing the courthouse.

The miracle, so far, has been no money has been required as compensation for someone becoming seriously injured or ill from being exposed to dangerous conditions.

More than a year has passed since the board set a target date to evacuate the courthouse by March 1, 2018. Plans are ongoing to move a couple of offices to other downtown locations, but the majority of courthouse operations continue in a building that’s been neglected for more than 40 years.

We find the continuous delays to move people to safety unconscionable – as have many grand juries that have reported on the building over the years.

The latest grand jury report, filed on Jan. 16, lists numerous hazards and states in part: “That action be taken by the Board of Supervisors to immediately remove the employees from the courthouse and relocated to a safer environment until they decide what they are going to do with the courthouse. The overall conditions of the courthouse are not safe for anyone working or visiting.”

The plan to move workers by March 1, 2018 to the Bonita Lakes Mall space vacated by J.C. Penney was abandoned last winter due to the projected cost and desire to keep workers downtown. The supervisors instead shifted their focus to purchasing the old federal building on 9th Street that houses the U.S. Post Office.

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That solution is worth considering, but the delay in moving workers and the inability to make accurate cost projections are now attributed to the slow pace of negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service.

Slow pace is an understatement. The county first expressed interest in purchasing the federal building in September 2012. With such an eager buyer and the Postal Service’s revenue problems, it would seem a deal should have been reached by now. It is difficult to assess cause for the delay in closing a deal or even whether it’s the most cost-effective solution because all discussions and deliberations have taken place out of public view.

The supervisors have requested patience as they exercise caution and confront a project that the Stewart study stated would cost more than $30 million. Most county residents would give some leeway, but this board has delayed moving workers for more than two years.

Supervisor Jonathan Wells said it could take another year to see the full picture and he would give the Postal Service another eight to 10 months before the supervisors would re-evaluate that approach.

We imagine decisions are even more complicated in an election year.

Meanwhile, courthouse workers and visitors suffer an unsafe environment that could turn tragic at any moment. And despite all the exercise in caution, we have no idea of the eventual total cost, which could end less or much more than estimates by Stewart in December, 2016.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, Wells said the supervisors have decided to eat the elephant one bite at a time, and we hope that doesn’t come with a death by a thousand cuts.

As we wrote on Feb. 11, 2017, again on Sept. 16, 2017 and again on March 3, 2018, we urge the supervisors to empty the courthouse of people now and protect our workers and the community.

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