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Chiseled in marble plans needed for courthouse

During his May meeting, Commissioner Robert Jones announced a contract for test bores around the courthouse in Jasper. The $5,400 drilling project is needed to determine if soil around the site is suitable for a massive courthouse expansion.

Due to the history of the civic square (earlier courthouses, unmarked buried lines and the possibility of old “coal bins” left from times past), the test bores seem prudent before beginning work on a project once budgeted at almost $20 million dollars. Note: Commissioner Jones has said this will probably be only a $10 million dollar project, and he hopes to keep costs down. But in the original 2008 sales tax referendum spending resolutions signed by Jones, construction was pegged at  $17 million with a separate line “Debt Service for Courthouse and Parking Facility” at $2,711,510.

Of course, that was three years ago when the economy was stronger and the SPLOST was expected to take in $34 million. Now, at roughly the halfway point of the sales tax collection which runs through June of 2014, the county is projecting to collect only $21,977,434 based on their latest figures.

Obviously a lot has changed since courthouse plans were created. Early sketches for the renovation/rebuilding of the courthouse have been floated, then recalled as mere preliminary drawings; hearings have been held; committees have been formed, have met and disbanded.

For this project, 4.5 acres was purchased for $477,976 behind the Piggly Wiggly as future parking. The courthouse commission constantly listed parking as their major concern for a downtown courthouse. A former beauty shop on the bought land now houses the elections office in what has been described as a temporary setting until the new courthouse is complete.

A vacant 8,400 square foot building was purchased for $575,000 near the Admin Building in 2009. Originally this building was slated to be temporary court space for departments relocated during construction. But now the building houses the veterans referral office and the investigative division of the sheriff’s office, apparently not on a temporary basis.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed in the past three years is the poor condition of the marble courthouse, a state that clearly bespeaks the need for renovation.

One person inside the courthouse told us many judicial workers were chagrined that soil drilling on the grounds was considered “pre-planning.” Why after three years of piddling around is the county still not formally into planning mode yet?

Granted, this is a massive project for numerous reasons:

• Whatever is built must be big enough to handle the demands of a growing court system.

• The building has to meet all kinds of judicial security requirements.

• There is a historic element to the structure. The marble building is considered to have significance. We agree only that the marble used for the facade is representative of our chief industry here. In our view, there is little inside that is eye-catching or deserves preservation.

• There is, of course, the financing. Revenues are running behind projections, and taxpayers are not in the mood to see anything go over budget. But, consider the next point.

• Whatever is built will anchor downtown Jasper for the foreseeable future. We’d hate to see something put up with budget as the uppermost priority.

This is undoubtedly a complicated affair. What is needed from our commissioner is  leadership. Not a construction plan,  not a timeline nor a bid package, but simply for Mr. Jones to take the reins and clearly develop a plan of how we’re going to build something that works for the courts now, that we can be proud of into the future, and that we can afford with a much decreased budget.

We’re not saying it’s time to break ground, but it’s well past time to move from pre-planning into honest-to-goodness planning.