After a heated exchange and requests to see more cost details Tuesday, a divided Morgan County Commission approved a $1 million plan to construct courthouse annexes in Hartselle and Cotaco.
District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark and District 3 Commissioner Don Stisher voted against the proposal to construct a building in District 2 and a second in in District 4. They had questions about the projected price tag and said the county has an uncertain revenue outlook.
Commission Chairman Ray Long had a sometimes-testy discussion with Stisher before voting for the motion and breaking a 2-2 deadlock. District 2 Commissioner Randy Vest and District 4 Commissioner Greg Abercrombie also supported the project.
Stisher said the project will cost at least $1.4 million. He added the county will be losing about $1 million annually in projected revenue from online sales taxes because of a bill Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored redirecting most of that tax money to school systems.
A 100-by-70-foot structure in Hartselle to house Parks and Recreation, the Commission on Aging, revenue and license offices is on the drawing board. Presently, the satellite revenue and license offices are in the Crestwood Shopping Center along U.S. 31 in downtown Hartselle. In March, the county rented and renovated a room in the shopping center as a waiting area for county patrons.
Plans are to erect a 50-by-40-foot building housing licenses and revenue department offices next to the District 4 shop in Cotaco.
Long said most of the money for the projects comes from the $500,000 the real estate holding affiliate of Cook’s Pest Control paid the county for the former district health clinic on Cherry Street and $350,000 from a refund when Remington Arms Co. failed to reach a hiring benchmark in January.
Long said the District 4 shop currently sells car tags and takes in property tax payments. He said sometimes people wanting to buy tags are forced to stand outside. He said he has studied the project the past several months and had discussions with Jack Fite, president and CEO of Fite Construction Co. LLC. The commission voted to have Fite perform program and construction management services related to the project.
“Nobody should have to stand in the weather to buy a tag,” Long said. “I’m ready to get them out of the rain and get them in the building.”
Clark said he's not sure the money is in the general fund for the project.
“The general fund revenue is going to take a hit," he said. "We ought to get (the general fund) up where it needs to be. We don’t know where we’re going to be next year yet.”
Long reminded the commissioners the money for the project was unbudgeted.
“Free money has come in,” Long said after the meeting. “Now is the time to do it before this money gets committed to something else. Let’s do something for our citizens."
Stisher said he was "very uncomfortable with this investment at this time. We need to get a true balance of our finances."
Long told Stisher he appreciates his concern. “But it’s kind of downgrading my staff for you to sit up here and say we haven’t studied this. I didn’t wake up this morning and do this.” Long has been chairman nine years.
“I’m not trying to embarrass you in any way,” Stisher told Long. “I’d like to see the budget numbers. I don’t think I’m comfortable with it at this time.”
Long shot back at Stisher: “You sit here and tell me I don’t know how to run a budget. … We’ve been meeting on this thing four or five months to make sure we can afford it. I’m probably tighter than anybody sitting at this table about spending money. … We’ve done our research.”
Clark added he’d like to see “some projection" of what the building will cost per square foot.
Stisher suggested the commission table the issue until fiscal 2020 discussions begin in August.
“Waiting three months is not going to make a big difference in anybody’s life,” Stisher said after the meeting.
Stisher said he feels the new buildings may require more employees and higher maintenance costs.
After the meeting, Fite said construction plans could be in place in a couple of months and the buildings completed in about eight months. The new environmental services building approved last month is also part of the construction work, he said.