November 5, 2012 10:27:57 AM
STARKVILLE -- City officials say there are many reasons the city of Starkville needs a new municipal complex.
Here's one to consider: The building where building permits are issued -- legal documents that assure buildings are built to meet code -- is not up to code.
"When you come in here to apply for a building permit, you walk through a building that would not be eligible for such a permit itself," laments Starkville mayor Parker Wiseman.
This is one of several issues Wiseman and other city officials have with the aging building.
Help could be on the way, but not without a ruling on whether the city's method of upgrading the facility was legal.
In June, the Starkville Board of Aldermen approved plans for 20-year lease purchase agreement with West Brothers Construction to construct a new 24,500 square foot municipal complex. The contract states that funding would be obtained through satisfied debt and general funds already amassed, but that it would also rely on a projected increase in future sales tax revenue, something that has made many citizens uneasy.
The project would move all city hall and court functions to a new $6.7 million building, which is proposed at the last location of the Starkville Electric Department. The approval also includes the acquisition of funding for a $1.3 million renovation of the current city hall into an expanded police department, but the construction of this facility would have to be approved at a later date.
Last Thursday, the Board of Aldermen sat in front of 14th Chancery District Judge Jim Davidson Jr. and listened as William McGovern, represented by attorney Charles Yoste, argued that the city's contract had major holes and that the whole process of approving the new complex was executed in an attempt to circumvent the will of the city's residents.
Previous bond issues presented to voters for the construction of a new municipal complex failed, a fact that some residents point to as evidence that the city is employing an end-run around the will of the people. City officials argue that the new method of financing the desperately needed facility will not increase the tax burden on residents, which was the biggest issue voters had with the bond proposals.
City attorney Chris Latimer and Yoste have until Nov. 10 to submit closing arguments to Davidson, after which Davidson will have no more than 60 days to render a decision.
McGovern had not return a phone call to his residence by press time.
In the interim, problems at the current city hall will continue to persist, with the biggest, most visible issue being space.
As of right now, Starkville's City Hall has 267 employees working daily in its 24,000-square-foot facility. This includes police, court and city employees. In comparison, Saltillo, a city with a population almost five times smaller than Starkville, operates in a 44,000-square-foot municipal complex.
Wiseman said needs assessments based on personnel and job functions have returned some staggering results for the building.
"Right now, we have less than half the space that is needed for the personnel in this building," Wiseman said. "As you go through the building, you get an impression very quickly as to why space is such an issue."
If the plans are approved for the new complex, city hall and court functions will move into the new facility and the vacated space will be used for a renovated and expanded police department.
This would nearly triple the 8,000 square feet the police department now operates in, but would actually still fall short of the needs assessment, which called for 26,000 square feet.
The space issue is undeniable. Anyone who has had to pay a ticket should be able to attest to this. A simple peek through the Plexiglas that separates the public from the deputy court clerks is all that is needed. Desks are jammed together, papers and files are piled on desks and chairs, even the floor.
"They function very well in a very difficult environment, but that is not an easy environment to work in," Wiseman said.
Without even moving from the deputy court clerks' window, another problem is clearly visible.
A row of six, four-and-a-half foot, filing cabinets, complete with padlocks for each drawer, line a narrow hallway that leads to the rear of the building. This is overflow of sensitive documents related to municipal court matters; there are 38 of these filing cabinets spread throughout hallways of the building.
Because City Hall houses documents and records for all three departments in the building, Court Administrator Tony Rook said finding a place to store these physical files is a daily problem. As the city has grown, file sizes have grown and the space to store them continues to shrink.
"We are about to the point where we are going to have to rent storage," Rook said.
Roughly two years ago, Rook came in on his own time and with materials provided by the city, constructed a large metal cage, supported by wooden beams in the attic-like rear room of City Hall in order to give the city more room for file storage. The 12-foot fence is merely secured by a padlock. The cage holds previous court documents that date back 25 years.
"It's filling up a lot faster than I thought," Rook said.
Though space and functionality of the building is the obvious issue, Rook, who actually shares a desk in a 10-foot by 10-foot office with the judge and the city prosecutor, said the image that is portrayed by what he called obviously insufficient facilities should be a selling point to support the new complex.
For the courtroom, which serves as a multi-purpose room that holds several different board meetings a month, everything is bare minimum. No witness stand, no banister separating the court audience from the active court area, no prisoner holding area, no meeting rooms for attorneys and their clients and the list goes on.
"When you think of a court, you automatically think of a judge and, at least to some degree, your perception of the city," Rook said. "This is their first impression."
There is also only one bathroom available for public use downstairs. Even court officials wanting to use the bathroom must go to the mayor's office or the police department.
Building a wing or addition to the complex is not an option, either, since the building on the corner of Lampkin and Washington streets is flanked on the sides by retail and restaurants.
"Where can we go?" Rook asked. "Parking is already a huge issue, too. People come to court late all the time saying they had to park two or three blocks away."
Wiseman made it clear that image is lower on the list of priorities than basic needs, but that it is still significant.
"We can't ignore the fact that it speaks volumes about us when you see that we have a building in dilapidated condition that serves as our city hall," he said.
Even with continued resistance, Wiseman said he is confident that the project, if approved, will serve the needs of the city in a major, necessary way and will not be a huge financial burden on taxpayers.
"In the past, we have always discussed how much additional tax revenue would be necessary to fund this kind of building; well we aren't discussing that anymore," Wiseman said. "This has been scaled down enough that we are able to meet our needs without the possibility of those tax increases. I genuinely believe this is a really valuable opportunity to move Starkville forward."