By Russell Hood and Daniel Brunty
The Webster Progress-Times
Webster County voters will have an opportunity to express their opinion in a special election Tuesday on the issue of whether to build a new courthouse or restore it.
Election hours on April 8 will be from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. at all regular polling places except in Walthall, where the fire station will serve voters as the polling location. The Doss Butane Building at 2980 E. Roane Ave. in Eupora will serve as the election headquarters, including tabulation of returns. New voting machines will be used.
Those eligible to vote absentee may do so from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. today and Friday or from 8 a.m. until noon Saturday at the circuit clerk’s office in the Webster County Office Building/temporary courthouse in Eupora. Call 258-6287 for more information.
The advisory referendum is on the issue of replacement or rebuilding of the Webster County Courthouse in Walthall, where a fire severely damaged the structure last year. The Board of Supervisors approved a motion in December to hold the referendum.
Voters will mark their ballots for one of two statements: whether they support construction of a new courthouse, to be located somewhere in the county seat of Walthall; or if they support the restoration and rebuilding of the existing courthouse that was damaged by fire on Jan. 17, 2013.
During a recessed meeting Monday, board members expressed their need to hear from the public on this issue, in hopes of making a right decision for the county in regard to the courthouse. They are asking all voting residents of Webster County to come out “in numbers” for this event. The members stated that they need the public’s feedback on this important decision.
While the referendum is non-binding on the supervisors, they have stated it is unlikely that they would disregard the wishes of the voters of the county.
“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,” the board said in a statement published March 6 in this newspaper.
‘No Metal Building’
The board also stated in that 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.”
When the board voted Aug. 19 to hire public insurance adjuster Scott Favre to present the county’s claim on the courthouse loss, he strongly recommended building anew instead of renovating the existing structure.
“We’ll be proving that there is no value left there and it is a total loss,” said Favre. “I think the building’s dead. … You’re never gonna get the smoke smell out of that building.”
The Webster County board participated in a conference call with Perry County Supervisor Lanny Mixon on Dec. 16 to get information about renovating a damaged courthouse. Perry County’s courthouse, which is a Mississippi Landmark like Webster’s, was restored following a 1990 fire.
“The biggest issues we have is the tremendous costs of keeping a building up that was basically rebuilt to the standards and specifications of a 100-year old building,” Mixon said.
Mixon explained to the supervisors that if they choose to restore the old building, they may face current federal regulations that may not allow them to perform a complete historic restoration.
“After doing an accurate restoration back to a 100-year old building, you are going to find out that in many instances, the building is just obsolete from what you want to do with it,” he said. “We have issues with wiring, and sometimes we have huge cracks in plaster in some walls.”
Mixon went on to explain that one of the biggest issues Perry County faces is that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History limits most of the decision-making process by the county and its representatives. Mixon recalled how most repairs that are done to the courthouse have to be done through the MDAH. Also, Mixon recalled that during the restoration process, the county had little say in any of the process.
Mixon made other points regarding a complete restoration, such as the fact that with the building being constructed to original specifications, the county has issues of space still. Also, under complete historic restoration, the county cannot add space directly to the structure.
Mixon was asked how he and the other Perry County supervisors would vote if they could do so again on how to handle the burning of their courthouse, Mixon stated that the vote would be unanimous in favor of building an entirely new courthouse.
The county has said it does not know what a restoration of the burned courthouse would cost. Structural Engineer Mark Watson, following a study of the building, reported that he found no structural damage to the concrete floor system on the first floor nor any areas of structural failure in the first-floor rooms. He said most of the structural rehabilitation would involve repairing the upper perimeter wall.
Watson stated that significant structural repairs to the second-floor system do not appear to be justified, but that load testing would probably be prudent to verify its actual load-carrying capacity.
He said numerous interior non-loadbearing walls will need to be reconstructed, and that considerable mitigation of saturated materials and accompanying mold/mildew growth is needed.
The courthouse was named to the 2013-14 list of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in Mississippi. Last year, MDAH awarded the county a $500,000 Community Heritage Preservation Grant to fund the stabilization of the building’s walls and reconstruction of the roof.
MDAH officials told the board last month that the grant was still available but that the county needed to apply before April. However, supervisors explained that they were waiting on the results of the courthouse referendum before making a decision about applying.
In the board’s statement published March 6, it said, “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.”
In related action Monday, the board voted to advertise for a Community Development Block Grant public hearing on the project to make the courthouse compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act if it is restored. The Golden Triangle Planning and Development District will set the date and place for the hearing.