For some time now, the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors has prided itself on its sound fiscal policy.
One does not have to look far to see the evidence. Since the supervisors successfully lobbied the state legislature for the right to invest its $30-million hospital trust fund in stocks and bonds in 2013, the county has grown the fund by more than $2 million while using another $4 million in profits, money used to fund a variety of capital improvement projects.
You would be hard-pressed to find a greater example of wise management of taxpayer money, especially in this state.
The county hasn’t stopped there, either. Just this month, the supervisors approved a plan to invest a portion of its general funds into certificates of deposit, which may yield another $25,000 in earnings.
That kind of track record is why another of the county’s move seems so surprising — and out of character.
The county is paying $190,000 for a property that, at best, should have cost no more than roughly $30.000.
It’s a convoluted story, so follow along:
In November, the county supervisors voted unanimously to purchase the Lipscomb house near the county courthouse, which is the only piece of property on the block not owned by the county.
Supervisors said from the start that they had no interest in the house. They only wanted the land on the theory that it might be of some use should the county decided to expand its courthouse at some unspecified point in the future.
The sale price was based on two appraisals of $190,000, which a;sp included the home, which is now in the estate of the late Randolph Lipscomb. Attorney David Sanders, the brother of board of supervisors president Harry Sanders, negotiated the sale on behalf of Lipscomb’s heirs.
Under normal conditions, that would be been a simple transaction. The county would have bought the property and demolished the house. Easy-breezy.
But there was a catch. The house, built in the late 1800s, is listed on the registry of historic places and a government entity cannot demolish a home on that list. The private owners can demolish the house, however, provided they obtain the approval of the city’s historic commission.
What to do? The supervisors attached a condition on the sale: The owners would obtain the approval to have the house demolished at their own expense.
The county would then have the empty lot it wanted.
Sounds OK, right?
If you want to buy a comparable empty lot in the city of Columbus, you could expect to pay about $20,000 for it. So, if it was the county’s desire to buy an empty lot, it should have ordered an appraisal for the value of the land alone, not the “improvement” on the property, i.e., the house — a house the supervisors made clear they does not want.
In essence, the county is paying the price for a house but only taking possession of a small piece of land.
At the very worst, the county could have had a clean lot for about $30,000, assuming the land would appraise for $20,000 and the supervisors would agree to pay the estate another $10,000 to have the house removed.
There’s a good chance the estate would have said “no, thanks” to that offer. Even so, obtaining that land is not a priority. There is no compelling need for the county to own that land. After having demolished to old annex building on the block, any expansion of the courthouse could be easily accommodated with the existing land the county owns.
Mississippi Code dictates that governments cannot pay above appraised value for property. There is a an exception, however, if efforts to negotiate a sale at appraised value fail and there is a compelling need for the government entity to acquire the land.
Mississippi code requires an appraisal. The question, then, is whether the county ordered the proper appraisal, an appraisal on the land only since it was clear it had no interest in the house.
The answer to that question would likely require a court challenge to determine, which appears unlikely.
The Lipscomb estate has won approval from the historic commission to demolish the house, although as of this week it had not applied for a demolition permit.
So it looks like the Lipscomb estate will be happy. The supervisors will be happy.
But what of the taxpayers?
Is spending $190,000 for a $20,000 lot a wise use of taxpayer money?
It’s a hard case to make.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]