County continues recovery measures

By Russell Hood
The Webster Progress-Times

Webster County officials and others continue to deal with issues
stemming from last month’s fire that destroyed the Courthouse in
Walthall:

This is a timeline of related motions approved and matters discussed
in meetings of the Board of Supervisors since the Jan. 17 fire, as
recorded in its minutes or based upon coverage of the meetings on the
dates listed:

• Jan. 17: An emergency meeting was called because of serious damage
in that the Courthouse was destroyed by fire in the wee hours of the
morning. Numerous county officials were present, along with Choctaw
County Chancery Clerk Steve Montgomery, Montgomery County Chancery
Clerk Tee Golding, Walthall Mayor Belinda Stewart and Eupora Alderman
Dan Burchfield.

The board issued a proclamation of the existence of a local
emergency. A telephone call was then put in to legislators Joey Hood
and Jim Beckett, both of whom addressed the board via telephone. They
then call Robert Latham, director of Mississippi Emergency Management
Agency, and he addressed the board by phone.

Eddie Mauck of Hopkins Insurance Agency in Columbus addressed the
board. He announced that One Beacon, the county’s insurer, would have
its adjusters here the next day and in the meantime had hired an
independent adjuster, Patrick Blankenship, who was to come that day.
Mauck provided a copy of the county’s insurance policy.

• Jan. 18: Among the many present were Tracy Pharr of MEMA and
structural engineer Mack Watson.

The board called state Rep. Joey Hood of Choctaw County (District
35) , who addressed the board via phone. Blankenship, who is a
general adjuster with Engle Martin and Associates of Ridgeland,
addressed the board.

He reported that the county had $6,193,000 blanket limit covering the
building and an additional $2,477,900 in various coverages in
addition to the building.

Stewart and Watson appeared before the board about the condition of
the ruins of the courthouse.

The board voted to designate the site of the burned courthouse as a
danger zone and exclude the public from going onto the premises, to
allow on site only businesses connected to the maintenance of the
site or the records, restoration of the courthouse or construction of
a new courthouse, and for them to be allowed on site with permission
of the sheriff at his discretion.

Richard Greenlee Jr., president of Ridgeland-based MEDIR Inc.,
appeared before the board. The supervisors voted to hire MEDIR on a
temporary basis to do work on the preservation and restoration of
county records, but to secure quotes from MEDIR for the entire job
and get quotes from other vendors. Currently MEDIR is a sole-source
provider and had already done significant work in the emergency.

The board voted to rent a refrigerated truck from Bob Black Wrecker
Service of Winona to use in the preservation of county records. Its
quote was $50 a day. A second quote received was $500 a week.

After recessing until 6 p.m. to examine available public buildings
and offices, the board voted to place all the public records taken
from the courthouse in various degrees of damage, and place them into
the refrigerated truck and take them to the parking area adjacent to
the county jail in Eupora, where the sheriff could guard them. This
move was for the safekeeping of the records.
Hood again addressed the board by phone.

The board voted to relocate all county offices to the County Office
Building at 16 E. Fox Ave. in Eupora and to designate the Justice
Court courtroom as the site for Circuit Court. Supervisors also
instructed the board attorney to negotiate interlocal agreements with
the city of Eupora in hopes of using the municipal courtroom for
Chancery Court and Youth Court, and with the School Board to use
school office building boardroom as the meeting place for Board of
Supervisors.

• Jan. 21: Chancery Clerks Tim Kellar of Hancock County and Paula
Sykes of Sunflower County were among those present. The board hired
Jimmy Forrester to work as public relations representative concerning
the recovery from the fire, retroactive to Jan. 17. His salary was to
be paid from the recovery fund.

Chancery Clerk Russ Turner and board attorney Buchanan Meek Jr. were
designated as “points of contact” for record restoration.

The board established a new fund in the county budget to be
designated the Courthouse Fire Recovery Fund and created two income
line items in the fund for donations and insurance proceeds. The
amounts placed in the fund may only be spent on expenses surrounding
the re-establishment of necessary operations following the fire and
on the restoration or rebuilding of the new courthouse and on the
preservation and restoration of county records.

• Jan. 23: The board made an interfund loan of $20,000 from the
General Fund to the Fire Recovery Fund.

• Jan. 25: Mississippi Department of Archives and History
representatives addressed the board about historical issues
pertaining to their organization, both from a structural standpoint
and public records. Bob Rathe and Ellen Skaggs of The Windward Group
addressed the board about record restoration.

• Jan. 28: All relocated county offices reopened that morning in the
county Office Building. The board voted to request that the
Legislature pass legislation to suspend the imposition of penalties
and interest on the payment of Webster County ad valorem taxes until
Feb. 15. On Jan. 31, the board noted on the record that Gov. Phil
Bryant had issued a proclamation to do so.

Supervisors directed the clerk to obtain quotes on scanning and
indexing land records from Jan. 1, 1980, to present. They hired Tim
Roberson as insurance recovery coordinator and agreed to pay him $10
an hour out of the courthouse recovery fund. His brother-in-law,
District 4 Supervisor Paul Crowley, recused himself from the vote.
Roberson was present at a Jan. 24 board meeting.
• Jan. 30: The board considered quotations for the restoration of
records. Greenlee, along with Rathe, Skaggs and Kevin Pont of The
Windward Group, were present for opening of quotes as requested by
email.

The board took the quotes under advisement. After recessing and
returning that afternoon, supervisors accept MEDIR’s proposal as to
scanning and indexing (minimal scope) only. Its proposal was accepted
as the best bid and as a professional service, and the total project
estimate was $88,373.50.

MEDIR’s imaging services agreement states the company would treat,
recover and scan about 289 books and/or volumes of land records books
that, as of then, were being stored in the freezer truck in the
county. The company was to scan all pages by book, break down all
documents to the instrument level and index all land records by book
and page number. MEDIR was to also perform freeze-drying and record
recovery services for the treatment of about 224 severely water-
damaged books categorized as “Level 3” books. About 47 of those books
are covered under the Phase 1 scanning of the county records. About
177 additional Level 3 books were to be treated and/or freeze-dried
for a price not to exceed $25,000.

Roberson and Kellar were present at the afternoon meeting.

The board designated the municipal courtroom at Eupora City Hall/
Community House as the site for Chancery Court and Youth Court. The
supervisors approved a modified agreement presented by Burchfield on
Feb. 7.

Also on Jan. 30, the board spread upon the minutes a letter from
Senior Circuit Judge Joey Loper, dated Jan. 18, expressing regret
over the fire and offering any available assistance. Supervisors made
a phone call to Albert Crowell with the state Fire Marshal’s Office,
who addressed the board via telephone.

• Jan. 31: The board hired MEDIR to have all books, indexes and other
county records that could not be dried locally dried at whatever
locations and by whatever process is best and most economical in
MEDIR’s opinion, and pay the company no more than $25,000.

The minutes indicate that this would involve 177 additional books,
more or less, over the books included in the quoted price accepted
Jan. 30. Greenlee later said that those records were shipped to
Chicago on Feb. 6. On Monday, Turner said one shipment of records
arrived back to Eupora that morning and that the remainder was
expected back later this week. He also confirmed that insurance
proceeds are covering all of MEDIR’s costs.

The board entered into contract with MEDIR evidencing all terms and
conditions of the county’s hiring of the company on Jan. 30 and 31.

• Feb. 19: Mauck met briefly with the board concerning insurance
matters stemming from the fire disaster. After board President Pat
Cummings asked about the structural assessment of the courthouse,
Mauck said he was still awaiting a final reconstruction estimate.
“You’re gonna have the money to build a new building either way,” he
said.