By Russell Hood The Webster Progress-Times
Supervisors have met nearly every business day since the Jan. 17 fire that gutted the Webster County Courthouse in Walthall to handle matters concerning the recovery process. Tuesday was the only day they have not met since then.
An investigation determined that the predawn fire started when a power strip in the first-floor mapping office on the southwest corner shorted out. Later that day, the Board of Supervisors, issued a proclamation declaring Webster County in a local state of emergency. Supervisors also declared the courthouse a danger zone, and it has since been sealed off to the public.
The board voted the next day to temporarily relocate the offices that were in the courthouse to the Webster County Office Building in Eupora. After a week of work by electricians, carpenters, technicians and others, along with the move-in, the offices reopened there Monday morning. Additionally, supervisors voted to rent an 18-wheeler refrigerated trailer from Bob’s Wrecker Service of Winona to store and freeze-dry water-damaged records. They also hired Jimmy Forrester as a public information officer to handle media inquiries.
Restoring Records Records restoration has been a major topic of discussion at the county board meetings. The county has hired Medir Inc. on a temporary basis to provide document restoration and preservation work. The company is a sole-source provider.
Medir, according to its website, is an onsite document imaging, index, storage and recovery company. It uses the freeze-dry process in disaster recovery situations to arrest the deterioration of water- damaged documents, then restores them to virtually their original condition by extracting moisture on the cellular level. Documents are restored to a state where they can be imaged or returned to a nearly original state,. On Friday, Tim Bernard and Bob Dent of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s Records Management Division discussed records restoration and digital imaging with supervisors.
They were to return Tuesday with a crew from MDAH to work with Chancery Clerk Russ Turner and Circuit Clerk Deborah Hood Neal on inventorying their records.
President/CEO Robert Rathe Jr. and Chief Operating Officer Ellen Skaggs of The Windward Group from New Orleans gave a presentation to the board Friday about the company’s document management and scanning services.
Discussion of records restoration continued at a board meeting Monday afternoon. A Medir representative who is working here was present during some of the talks , which included information about document scanning and imaging.
After agreeing to get quotes for the work, the board directed Turner to obtain proposals on “Phase 1” scanning/indexing of Chancery Court land records from 1980 forward, including the price and time to do so. Sunflower County Chancery Clerk Paula Sykes was at the meeting and agreed to write a scope of proposal (specifications). The proposals were due Wednesday morning, when the board was to meet again.
MDAH Assistance Aileen de la Torre, MDAH grants administrator, met with the board Friday. The discussion included options based upon whether or not the county’s property insurance company determines that the courthouse can be restored from the remains, or if it advises that restoration is not feasible and that the Mississippi Landmark be abandoned and demolished.
“We’re in a speculative frame right now,” board President Pat Cummings said at one point.
De la Torre said, “We would assist in granting (some) funds for restoration of the building (above what the county’s insurance company covers).” She confirmed that the amount and type of funding depends on state legislation, most likely a Community Heritage Preservation Grant line-item budget designation from the Legislature. She said insurance money could be used as a match if required, but that usually a line item doesn’t require a match.
If the decision is made, based upon the insurance company’s recommendation to the county, to demolish the shell of the courthouse and build anew, de la Torre said the MDAH board of trustees would have to decide whether or not to de-designate the building as a Mississippi Landmark before it could be demolished as a ruin.
“We would work with you either way,” she said.
She also said that if the insurance company assessor recommends that the remains of the building be demolished, MDAH would hire an independent structural engineer to give a second opinion.
Related Action In relater matters Monday, the board voted to hire Tim Roberson as insurance recovery coordinator for the county at $10 an hour. Supervisor Paul Crowley (District 4), who is his brother-in-law, recused himself from the boardroom during the discussion and vote. Roberson will be paid from the Courthouse Fire Recovery Fund, which has been established to receive donations and insurance money. Because of the courthouse fire, supervisors voted to extend the deadline before interest starts accruing on property tax payments from Feb. 1 to Feb. 15.
Other Business In unrelated business on Jan. 22, supervisors voted to enter into executive session for personnel purposes. After coming back into open session about 20 minutes later, they voted to accept the resignation of Toby Britt as a deputy effective Jan. 21.
The board also voted to accept the resignation of Andy McCants as a part-time deputy effective Jan. 15 and to move Daniel Walker from a part-time to full-time jailer effective Jan. 23. Sheriff Tim Mitchell, Deputy Sheriff Jeff Mann and Britt remained in the boardroom during the closed session.
The board received and opened four bids for a state-aid project. After taking them under advisement for engineers’ review, supervisors accepted the low bid of $342,177.61 from Traffic Control Products.