Rock Building restoration still in works

Published 4:00 am Saturday, March 21, 2015

Although pleased with Pike County Probate Judge Wes Allen’s offer to help fund the Rock Building’s restoration, Pike County commissioners said this week they wished he would have gone about it a different way.

Commissioner Joey Jackson said commissioners had spoken to Allen about potential uses for the fees he collects through the Probate Office.

“Knowing the balance he had in the account, we, Commissioner Goodson and I, talked to him in private about maybe using some of this money to pay on the ESCO … in hopes to free up money in other places,” Jackson said.

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In 2003, the county authorized additional fees on the issuing of marriage licenses, driver’s licenses and other Probate Office documents. Those proceeds are managed by the probate judge and to be used to preserve records of the county and supplement the work of the office. Allen has said the fees generate more than $100,000 a year and, through attentive fiscal management, the fund has a reserve of more than $400,000.

Commissioners had inquired about the fund balances in September 2014, during the budgeting process. At the time, commissioners said the funds could be used to offset county general fund budget shortfalls.

Earlier this week, Allen proposed to the commissioners a joint effort to restore the Rock Building. Allen pledged $20,000 a year for 10 years to the effort, and encouraged the commissioners to seek a 10-year loan to fund the estimated $521,000 restoration of the abandoned county building. Allen said he had contacted two local bank presidents, who provided estimated financing costs used in his proposal. He estimated the annual debt service on the loan would be about $63,000 a year.

The proposal was well received by grass-roots volunteers seeking to restore the Rock Building but county officials quickly cautioned the plan was incomplete.

Jackson said Allen’s proposal of contributing the funds is generous but doesn’t address the amount of money the county would need to make the Rock Building fully functioning.

“The estimate we had for the restoring of the Rock Building was basically to put a metal building down inside the building to have a shell there. That’s no electric, heating, plumbing. We thought the farmer’s market might be able to use it instead of the building just sitting there,” Jackson said.

He estimated the commission would need $500,000 to $750,000 more to be able to provide electricity, plumbing and heating and cooling for the building.

And, Jackson said, securing a loan would not be the answer to the lack-of-money problem.

“He spoke about how we could finance the project, but county government cannot borrow any money,” Jackson said. “We are governed by the State of Alabama. We cannot borrow money unless we have the revenue to secure it.”

Moreover, Jackson said the commissioners were upset with the proposal because their interests had not been considered and they had not been consulted before Allen went public with his proposal.

“We have to fund all 85 non-elected officials,” Jackson said. “We have all these concerns for the county, and we are also concerned about the Rock Building. But until the community as a whole can get together for what we are going to do, we’re at a standstill. The commission allocated $50,000 to work on the building. We’ve stepped forward with that much, but we don’t have half a million or a million and a quarter just to spend solely on that building.”

At issue is control over how the revenue generated by the probate office will be spent.

Allen said he offered to help fund the Rock Building project rather than others because the Rock Building represents the spirit of Pike County.

“I represent all the people of Pike County,” Allen said. “The Rock Building represents the spirit of our county. I presented my proposal to the people; however, the decision to accept this proposal is solely the responsibility of the Pike County commission. I am not looking to put pressure on them to accept this proposal.”

However, commissioners have said the county has other needs as well, including road and bridge repairs.

Jackson, who has been a vocal proponent of increasing funding for the road department, said Allen had previously told commissioners that if they wanted to have a portion of the funds allocated to the county’s general fund the commission would need to take over the license tag services provided by the probate office.

“If the commission wanted to take over the tag office for the probate office, he would let us have $78,000 of the $150,000,” Jackson said. “But, we could only do that if we chose to take over the tag office.”

And he said that was not feasible for the county.

And, while a harsh reality to face for commissioners, Jackson said the commission had been keeping the county’s best interest in mind.

“Right now at this point in time, I know what we look like financially and the problems that we face,” Jackson said. “Today that’s what we have to look at, what we have to do for the county to be able to provide the services citizens need and roads that are safe.”

Allen said that the decision to accept or deny his proposal ultimately sat with the commissioners.

“Each of the county commissioners was elected to represent the interests of their district,” Allen said. “It will be up to each of them to proceed in the way that they believe best reflects the interests of the residents that they represent.”