The old funeral home on Albany Avenue across from the county government complex is now a county property.
Madison County commissioners voted 3-2 July 6 to approve a $325,000 lease/purchase agreement for the old Brown Funeral Home. Commissioners Tripp Strickland, Brian Kirk and Derek Doster voted for the action, while Lee Allen and Theresa Bettis voted “No.”
The county will split the purchase into four payments over the next three years, including an initial down payment. The building will be used as office and court space.
Monday’s meeting was the first in person since March when the coronavirus outbreak began in the U.S. About half of the small crowd wore masks in the Madison County Superior Courtroom, where the meeting was held to allow for social distancing.
The board heard from Todd Higdon, who is challenging incumbent John Scarborough for the BOC chairman’s post. Higdon asked the board to postpone a vote until after the Aug. 11 special election. He said there was no clear purpose for the building. Higdon said he’s yet to hear specifics on what offices will be located in the building. He said the expense of renovations could bump the total far above $325,000, adding that the purchase will take the property off the tax base. He said it may be cheaper to buy land and build offices rather than purchase the old funeral home. And he said he hasn’t heard any judges requesting more space for court.
“I ask you to postpone a vote until you weigh all the options,” he said.
Scarborough said Madison County has the most Superior Court cases in the Northern Judicial Circuit. He said the district is considering adding a fourth judge and that court space will be needed to accommodate that judge.
Strickland, who made the motion for the purchase, said the chapel in the old funeral home is a good place for a courtroom. Kirk said the location of the old funeral home right next to the government complex is a plus, adding that the building could house voting equipment. He said he favored using that space than adding on to the county elections office. Doster said the purchase is a good long-term action for the county.
Allen spoke against the purchase, saying he hasn’t spoken with anyone who favors it. He said he doesn’t know exactly how the building will be used, adding that the total cost could end up at half a million dollars or more. He said the purchase is like “throwing the checkbook on the counter” at the wrong time.
“The people I serve have been outspoken in opposition to this,” said Allen. “They all feel this is not the time to do this. We need to protect our reserves.”
In a separate matter, the board postponed a vote on a lease/purchase agreement for a proposed new Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) building on Mary Ellen Court of Hwy. 29 in Danielsville where the old school board office is located.
The planned DFCS building has been discussed for months. The state government determined that the county needs a new DFCS facility and awarded an approximate $5 million contract to a developer to build that structure in Danielville. The county commissioners were asked by the state to propose a site. The school board agreed to sell the old school board property to the developer, who will construct the facility, then the building and land will be deeded to the county, who will lease the property for 20 years to the state, which oversees DFCS. After 20 years, the county will own the property and can use it for purposes outside of DFCS if leaders choose at that time.
The county will be in charge of the maintenance of the building, a cost Scarborough estimated at $200,000 to $350,000 over 20 years.
The finalized lease arrangement has yet to be provided to commissioners. Commissioners agreed to hold off on any vote until they can review the document, which should be available within a week. The document will be made available for public review on the county website.
Doster said he understood the lease arrangement, but he is concerned about the county’s liability if the state backs out of the deal. He said the state does have a good credit rating but added that Georgia has never before encountered a pandemic that has been so disruptive to the economy.
“I still am not clear on the rights the county has if there is a default (by the state government),” said Doster.
County attorney Mike Pruett explained that if the state canceled the lease agreement, the county would exercise its right to terminate its contract. He said the bank would “take back the land and building and also the maintenance and capital improvement accounts.”
“The county couldn’t be sued for any ‘deficiency’ like a homeowner can, but lenders and the credit markets in general would treat this as a default by the county, severely curtailing the county’s ability to borrow money in any way in the foreseeable future,” said Pruett. “Secondly, the state makes only its set lease payments plus it provides janitorial and utilities; all other maintenance and repairs are the county’s responsibility.”
The board heard from several people who oppose the lease agreement with the state. Josh Chandler, who owns the building on the courthouse square where DFCS has been located for years, said he doesn’t see any benefit to the taxpayers of Madison County. He said the state is not hiring more DFCS employees or adding to services for citizens.
“I don’t think this is a wise use of local or state dollars,” he said.
Chandler was asked about the current situation with the DFCS building. County DFCS employees have been working remotely since the pandemic began. Chandler said the annual lease for the facility has expired without the state renewing its use of the building.
Gina Ward said she wanted to see money put toward roads, environmental protections and other local uses rather than a new DFCS facility.
“If you have money to spend in the county, please spend it on the people, not buildings,” she said.
Higdon said there are too many unanswered questions for the board to move forward with the DFCS project. He said he’s heard nothing positive in the community about the plans. He said DFCS is operating with a skeleton crew as it is and has no promises from the state for more staff.
“Why build a building that is twice the size and half the staff?” he asked.
Michael McElroy told commissioners that he opposes the plan.
“Don’t I pay state taxes?” he asked. “Am I not paying for this one way or another?...I’m a citizen and I’m opposed to it.”
Bill Berryman, an attorney representing the developer, said the county will have a 13,800-square foot building on seven acres after 20 years. He said the facility is an investment in Madison County’s future, adding that it will be a quality facility.
“You’ll get a building on time, under budget and ready to serve the community,” he said.