Recent rains highlight deterioration of Bibb County Courthouse

As heavy rain poured outside last week, it also poured into some parts of the Bibb County Courthouse.

The rain, which dampened already peeling paint and saturated carpet in some areas, underscored the deterioration of the 84-year-old building — and the need for a new one.

The commission has known for years that the courthouse on Mulberry Street is in disrepair, and Bibb’s Superior Court judges issued a court order in August 2007 to build a new one by July 1, 2009.

But as commissioners figure out how to deal with the more than $75 million expense of a new courthouse, they also grapple with making repairs to preserve the current one and keep it in working order.

“We’re talking close to $2 million total for all the work we have to do,” Commissioner Elmo Richardson said. “It’s going to be a lot of major work. We’ve got a courthouse that’s been neglected for several years.”

Some of that work includes replacing the roof, windows, the front doors and glass work in the cupola, according to the county’s building and properties department.

Repairs in the past were short-term fixes that sometimes didn’t address the long-term problems the courthouse faces, Richardson said.

Now, “we’re looking more long term,” he said.

Already, the county has spent this year about $334,000 — most of which went toward replacing an outdated security system — on courthouse improvements, according to the finance department.

A few weeks ago, new chillers for the air conditioning system were installed at a cost of about $240,000, and new carpet is expected to come in next month at a cost of about $123,000, said Sam Kitchens, director of the buildings and properties department. Kitchens said he expects commissioners to talk about emergency repairs to dilapidated pipes at their Tuesday meeting.

“It’s just an old building,” he said.

Plans for a new courthouse are progressing, Richardson said. He declined to give further details about when or where a new courthouse may be built, saying only that the commission is looking to keep it downtown.

While judicial services are expected to move out of the current courthouse, it likely will continue to be used for other offices. As a result, preserving the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is still important, Richardson said.

“We’ve got to put money into the current courthouse to protect it,” he said.

Getting money for all the repairs and a new courthouse is the tough part, officials concede.

“We need a new courthouse for all kinds of reasons, but it’s not going to happen until a (sales tax referendum) is approved,” Commissioner Lonzy Edwards said.

He said he is disappointed there have been no conversations with city officials regarding a new penny tax and how it could be used for a new courthouse or other needs such as recreation.

“As far as I know, there have been no conversations at this point,” he said.

Richardson also said a new penny tax is the best way to pay for the courthouse without the county having to take on more debt. The current penny tax, which expires in March, helped pay off various city and county debts as well as build a new $30 million jail.

But Commissioner Joe Allen said he isn’t sold on a special one-cent sales tax, and he doesn’t think many residents would be either.

“I don’t think the people would vote for a SPLOST right now because of the way the economy is,” he said. “Personally, I wouldn’t vote for one.”

Allen said he favors continuing to restore and use the current courthouse, at least for the time being.

The commission should pick up speed on the new courthouse in January, Richardson said. By then, Commission Chairman-elect Sam Hart will have officially joined the board.

“The sense has been to wait until we get the players on the field,” Edwards said.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.