Board responds to courthouse questions

By Daniel Brunty
The Webster Progress-Times

The Webster County Board of Supervisors began Monday’s meeting by addressing questions about the courthouse and next month’s referendum on replacing or rebuilding it.

Voters will mark their ballots for one of two statements in the special election on April 8:

  • “I support the construction of a new Webster County Courthouse, to be located somewhere in Walthall, Mississippi, the county seat.”
  • “I support the restoration and rebuilding of the existing Webster County Courthouse that was damaged by fire on January 17, 2013.”

Last week the Progress-Times printed a Letter to the Editor (“Answers needed before voting”) submitted by Eupora resident Cynthia Wilson. She expressed concerns about and asked questions regarding the courthouse and the referendum.

Board’s Statement

This newspaper provided a copy of the questions to board President Pat Cummings and requested written responses to each. The entire board, after reviewing Wilson’s questions, came together to issue a statement (in addition to individual responses to each question) for all residents of the county in hopes of relieving their concerns. This is the board’s statement:

“The Webster County Courthouse burned on Jan. 17, 2013. The county notified the insurance carrier immediately and began negotiations concerning the payment of the claim almost immediately.

“Later, the insurance company made the county an offer that was grossly inadequate. The county continued to make efforts to supply the insurance company with the information necessary to allow them to come to a more reasonable position.

“Eventually, the county hired Scott Favre, a public insurance adjuster with considerable experience in handling claims of this nature and representing public entities, to present the county’s claim.

“Now, based on Favre’s work and demands on behalf of the county, the county has been sued by the insurance company. Process was served on Feb. 14, 2014.

“The county has hired Tina Nicholson, an experienced insurance lawyer, to represent the county in regard to this litigation and the claim of the county in general.

“The county hopes to bring this litigation to a successful conclusion soon, so the county can proceed to build a new courthouse or restore the old one.

The county has scheduled a referendum on the issue of whether to build a new courthouse or restore the old one. The referendum is scheduled for April 8, 2014. The referendum is non-binding on the supervisors, but it is unlikely that they would disregard the wishes of the voters of Webster County.

“Any polling of the Webster County voters costs about $6,000. The county received funds from the state, paid from Help Mississippi Vote Fund, of slightly more than that amount. This will pay for the cost of our referendum without using tax dollars.

“The referendum will be an excellent opportunity for the county to use the Doss Building for the first time as the election headquarters for the sending out and collecting of the voting machines and for tabulating the elections returns. It will also be the first time the new voting machines, purchased since the courthouse fire, will be used. Further, it will give the county an opportunity to deal with the new voter ID issues and have many of them resolved before the next mandated election.

“This is a very important issue and the board feels strongly that it is best to let the people decide by voting on the issue.

“It has been suggested by some that the county intends to erect a metal building as the new courthouse. This is not the case. The new courthouse will be made of bricks and mortar, and all the other materials necessary to construct a new, modern, efficient and beautiful structure in Webster County.

“The new courthouse will allow the business of the county to be carried out in a spacious and up-to-date environment. It will allow those using our court system to have ample space and modern technology available. It will allow taxpayers to experience new levels of convenience and facility when they come to pay their taxes. And it will expand and enhance the positive experience of all those using the courthouse because of modern offices in a new and beautiful setting.

“There will be NO metal building constructed to be the Webster County Courthouse.

“If the voters decide to restore the old courthouse, then the county will immediately move to accept the grant from the state to aid in the cost of restoration. Further the county will do everything in its power to make the restored 1915 structure as efficient and user friendly as possible.”

Question Responses

The board also released a statement providing answers to the questions in the Feb. 27 Letter to the Editor section of the Progress-Times. Each question is followed by the county’s response in quotation marks:

  • Why is it necessary to have a non-binding referendum? “All referendums not mandated by state law are non-binding.”
  • What is it costing the taxpayers to hold this election? “The cost of holding one polling in Webster County is approximately $6,000.”
  • Why is the county hiring a “public adjuster” for work that could be done “in house” and for free? “The county has not hired a public adjuster for work that could be done in house and for free.”
  • What is the fee this public adjuster is going to be paid and how it will be determined? “The public adjuster fee could be up to 10% of the recovery.”
  • Who will be approving his work? Will he be reporting to the board his billable hours and exactly what he is doing on their behalf? “The board of supervisors approves his work and the payment of his fee.”
  • What type coverage was there on the courthouse, was it replacement value coverage? “The coverage on the courthouse was replacement value.”
  • Who was the insurance agent for the policy on the courthouse? “Hopkins Insurance Agency, Columbus, Miss., is the insurance agent.”
  • What is the amount of money the insurance is most likely responsible to pay the county? “We cannot discuss the amounts to be paid because of pending litigation.”
  • How much will be paid if a new metal building is constructed for our courthouse? “A metal building will not be constructed for our new courthouse.”
  • How much will be paid if the old courthouse is restored based on the coverage provided by the insurance using quality materials to match the original? “It is not known what a restoration of the burned courthouse would cost. Bids would be taken at the appropriate time.”
  • If the money is tight then how can we afford to pay to hold an election, especially when the board of supervisors can choose to ignore the results since it is a non-binding referendum? “The referendum will give all registered voters in Webster County an opportunity to express their opinion.”
  • Why was it necessary to pay for a chain-link fence to be put up for safety reasons while the board tries to make a decision? “Lawyer’s advice to avoid liability. Insistence of the insurance company. Good judgment.”
  • Why is it necessary to pay a public adjuster to get the county more money and to not accept the $500,000 offered by the state of Mississippi out of emergency funds to restore this Mississippi Landmark structure? “No decisions have yet been made in regard to the restoration of the burned courthouse/landmark.”
  • • Have the supervisors weighed the difference in new vs. old pertaining to the longevity, quality of construction, which will better serve the community, will restoring the old create more jobs and sales tax revenue than building a new metal fabricated building? “A metal building will not be constructed for our new courthouse.”

MDAH Grant

The board also met with representatives from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, including Hank Holmes, director; Aileen de la Torre, architectural historian; and Mingo Tingle, preservation specialist.

The group came to inform the board that a grant of $500,000, which was previously offered to the county around a year ago, was still available to be applied for. With the grant coming from funds set aside for a year’s period, Holmes informed the board that the county could still apply before April. Supervisors explained to Holmes and his associates the circumstances regarding waiting on the results of the courthouse referendum before making a decision as to apply for the grant. The board agreed to keep them informed once it had solid answers regarding the direction the courthouse rebuild would be heading.

Other Action

In other news, the board:

  • Accepted last month’s minutes.
  • Approved a motion to recognize the hiring of Trenda Pratt as a part-time jailer at the Webster County Sheriff’s Office effective March 1, to be paid normal jailer wages, and to recognize the termination of Tiffany Guess as part-time jailer effective on Jan. 8.
  • Approved a motion to enter into an agreement with BancorpSouth in the lease, purchase and finance of a District 3 motor grader.
  • Authorized the president to sign the memorandum agreement with MDAH concerning the feasibility study that was completed and has been paid.

HOME Contracts

The Webster County Board of Supervisors also met Friday. Minutes reflect that the board voted to enter into contracts for professional services on the HOME Project with Meek & Meek for legal, James Cook for surveying, Metro Home Inspection for home inspection and Pearson Environmental Services LLC for asbestos Inspection.

Also approved was a motion to allow the sheriff to make purchases of up to $200 without a purchase order for any automobile parts or services.

The board will meet again on March 17 at 8:30 a.m.