County gives courthouse architects go-ahead

By Russell Hood
The Webster Progress-Times

The Webster County Board of Supervisors has directed an architectural firm to move forward with developing plans for the new courthouse in Walthall.

The action came during a recessed meeting Friday, when the board met with David Marsh, president of Benchmark Construction Corp., Paul Bagley of JH&H Architects and County Engineer Karl Grubb.

The board previously hired JH&H as architect for the new courthouse, which will be built on land the county purchased from the village of Walthall southwest of the Highway 9/50 intersection. It will replace the courthouse building that burned in January 2013.

Marsh and Bagley informed the board in June that JH&H was transitioning its agreement for the project to Benchmark, a general contractor based in Jackson. They said JH&H will still design the building while Benchmark will prepare cost estimates to work within the budget. Bagley, Marsh and the board agreed Friday that JH&H, which has been working on plans already, would stay under contract with the county.

At that meeting, Marsh also presented a proposed non-binding resolution declaring the board’s intent to acquire, construct, finance and equip the courthouse and related facilities under a lease-and-option-to-purchase agreement between the county and the Golden Triangle Public Buildings Leasing Corp. The non-profit corporation would then enter into a development and construction agreement with Benchmark. The board did not take any action on the resolution.

At last week’s meeting, Grubb asked Marsh a number of questions about the advantages of going with Benchmark versus the regular bid process, and how the county could benefit from it.

Marsh said in June that the main benefit of the lease-purchase process is that it takes out the uncertainty of the bidding process. He told Grubb on Friday that Benchmark will have a full-time person onsite to monitor the project, and that the contractor will consult with architects and the county throughout the process to determine exactly what is needed.

He also said prices will be obtained from multiple subcontractors/vendors after final floor plans are drawn, resulting in competition. “It’s just as competitive as the regular bid route,” said Marsh. The process eliminates the possibility of developing plans and the project coming in over budget, according to Marsh, who added, “The budget is carved in stone.”

When Grubb asked if Benchmark will budget for contingencies, Marsh replied, “At the very first pass we do, but that’s eliminated later when it becomes more definite.” He later said, “There’s a whole lot of work that goes into that initial budget.” If the costs for something are over the proposed budget, Marsh said Benchmark could ask the low subcontractors to negotiate with their suppliers “to get to that number.”

When supervisors emphasized that they wanted to have control, Marsh said, “The process we’re going through is the essence of that. … Our charge is to be sure it doesn’t go over budget.”

He also told the board, “If you decide to go with the bid process, y’all don’t owe us a penny,” and that the county does not have to pay Benchmark for its pre-construction work.

According to Friday’s discussions, the proposed lease of the courthouse building would be for 20 years, but board attorney Buchanan Meek Jr. said the county could pay it off early based upon its insurance settlement.

The county received a payment of a little over $3 million earlier this month from Atlantic Specialty Insurance Co. on its courthouse claim. An independent appraisal panel agreed to the damage award in a federal lawsuit between the county and Atlantic, which had already paid the county $2.8 million.

The insurance claim is still in litigation, and the board went into executive session for about 15 minutes during the meeting for litigation purposes, with no related action taken.

The board subsequently approved a motion for Webster County to proceed with JH&H Architects to draw up plans for the courthouse building, subject to the resolution of legal questions concerning the insurance benefits. The motion also approved the hiring of Benchmark to proceed with details of the lease-purchase plan on the new courthouse.

Board President Pat Cummings announced afterwards that the county’s proposed budget for the courthouse construction project is $4 million.

“We would like it be everything (including design fees),” he told Marsh and Bagley.

Doug Burgess (District 5) was absent. The board recessed until Friday, when it will meet at 8:30 a.m. in the Justice Court courtroom.