With the demolition of the Lowndes County Courthouse Annex building expected to be finished this week, the land on the corner of Fifth Street North and Third Avenue North will be used as a green space — for the time being.
“There have been several plans for that space,” County Administrator Ralph Billingsley said. “In fact, we still have the drawing for plans to build an additional courtroom and it was really beautiful.”
Board President Harry Sanders said he still hopes to expand and improve the courthouse, but there are several moving pieces that must be put in order before any action can be taken.
Building an additional courtroom on the north side of the courthouse, an area currently used for parking, would necessitate adding parking at another location, either on the Annex site as originally planned or on land located on the northeast corner of the block, which is available for sale by the Randolph Lipscomb estate.
“We’re hoping to buy the Randolph Lipscomb property on the northeast corner of that block,” Sanders said. “If we can do that, we can build an additional courtroom on the north side of the courthouse. But if we did that, we’d lose the parking back there, so we could either use the Lipscomb property or the annex property for that parking. … If we do build another courtroom, we’d need more parking.”
Sanders said the efforts to purchase the Lipscomb property face red-tape.
Lipscomb, a Columbus attorney, died in March and the county is negotiating with the estate for the purchase of his former law office.
“We made an offer for the property, and the executor turned it down and came back with a counter-offer,” Sanders said. “The other problem is that Randolph put the building on the historic registry list, but we don’t want the building. We want to land it’s on. But a government can’t take something off the historic list; only the private owner can do that. We couldn’t demolish the building if it’s still on that list. So that’s an issue. Then, if we get that squared away, you’ve got the demo costs, asbestos mitigation and going through all the paperwork and things you have to deal with when you’re dealing with an estate.”
Sanders said he would expect the total project — including building the new courtroom — would cost in the $2.5 million to $3 million range.
“It’s something that’s really needed,” Sanders said. “We have three chancery judges and three circuit judges, but we only have two courtrooms for each of them. That means all three can’t be in court at the same time. With Lowndes County being the biggest county in the court district, we have some pretty big backlogs. It’s something we’re going to have to do, one way or another.”
Sanders said the county could use dividends from the county’s $31 million hospital trust fund to finance the expansion.
“By law, any profits we make from the trust fund has to go to capital improvements,” Sanders said. “I think this would be an ideal use for that money. We could issue bonds and pay for it out of the money we make from the trust fund.”
Since 2013, the county has withdrawn more than $3 million in dividends from the trust fund. That money financed building community centers and the county’s new E-911 building.
Although many details have yet to fall into place, Billingsley said he’s confident the expansion will happen.
“I think it’s really just a question of when we can get started,” Billingsley said. “I think everybody agrees on what needs to be done.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]