Bibb commission seeks penny tax for new courthouse

The Bibb County Commission plans to push a new penny tax this fall to pay for a proposed new courthouse, a commissioner said Thursday.

If a sales tax referendum doesn’t pass, the county may have to take out bonds, which would accrue interest, or increase property taxes, Commissioner Elmo Richardson said during a meeting with The Telegraph’s editorial board.

“We can’t afford not to get that paid for through a SPLOST,” Commission Chairman Sam Hart said.

Plans for a new 171,000-square-foot courthouse located near the county jail in downtown Macon were made public at a NewTown Macon meeting Wednesday. The new facility is expected to improve security and provide additional space for the courts.

Commissioners have been looking at downtown locations for the past eight months and began acquiring property about six months ago through Conie Mac Darnell, principal of Center City Investments.

The county already owned a couple of parcels of land within the chosen block and plans to spend about $3.1 million acquiring property, including the Macon Transitional Center on Second Street, Richardson said. The county already has spent $1.6 million toward that end, he said.

Building the new courthouse and renovating the existing one for other administrative offices is expected to cost $60 million to $70 million, according to a 2007 estimate.

Richardson said construction costs have gone down since then.

An extra penny of sales tax generates about $32 million to $33 million per year, so the project could be paid off in just three years, he said.

The tax possibly could also be used for recreation enhancement, Richardson said.

The current penny tax, which paid off the new jail and other debts, expires in March.

Building a new courthouse will comply with a 2007 court order from Bibb’s Superior Court judges, who ordered commissioners to build one by July 2009. That court order has since been expanded to 2012.

To meet that, construction would have to start in 2010, Richardson said.

Commissioners plan to restore the 84-year-old Mulberry Street courthouse and move other government offices there.

Despite already acquiring land, Hart and Richardson said the courthouse plans are not final.

The commission has issued a request for qualifications for an architect who will take another look at the current courthouse and determine how it can be rehabilitated and what may be needed in a new courthouse.

“We’re not at the point of no return,” Richardson said. “It’s still open.”

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.