BIG CHANGES: Commission making critical decisions for Pike County

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Pike County Commission is in the middle of one of the most important stretches in recent history according to commissioners.

In 2018, the commission saw the retirement of long-time administrator Harry Sanders while the commission worked on bringing Rex Lumber to the county as well as planning for the construction of a new Pike County Jail.

Planning for the construction of a new jail began in 2017 with the hiring of TCU Consulting Services as a third party to analyze the county’s trends in jailing, crime and the courts and present possible solutions for a new jail design.

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The firm presented those findings at a commission meeting in July 2018, proposing that a new Pike County Jail should be approximately 41,000 sq. ft. and projected costs between $19 million to $28 million.

The firm presented seven possible options for a 129-inmate facility to the Pike County Commission in July.

Six of those plans would keep the jail near its current location next to the Pike County Courthouse and would add two more stories. The other option was to relocate the jail and courts to property the county already owns near the Pike County Road Department, keeping the jail to one-story while moving the courts close enough to walk prisoners to the courtroom.

Another option was recently presented to the commission that would also allow for a one-story jail at the current Dunbar Drive property. The option could also include the courts being moved to that location.

The options range from approximately $20 million to $30 million.

Sullivan said it is imperative for the commission to take its time and make the right decisions regarding the jail.

“It’s important that we try to make sure we do the right thing and build something that’s going to last as long as the one we’ve got now did,” said Commission Chairman Robin Sullivan.

The county has collected $4.5 million so far through a temporary sales tax to construct the jail.

Sullivan said the first step in 2019 is to hear back from the public.

“We’re in the process of setting up public hearings. They’ll be listening hearings for us,” Sullivan said. “We will not be there, as per TCU’s recommendation. They will have it taped and we will sit down and watch it.”

After getting the public’s input, Sullivan said it will be time for the commissioners to come to a decision. While that will be a long process, Sullivan said he still expects it will be made before the end of the year.

“The six of us are going to have to make a decision – it’s just that simple,” Sullivan said. “We also have to consider the other elected officials and what they want; we have to hear from them during this process. I would hope we make a decision on how to move forward before the end of the year so we can go ahead and get started.”

The jail won’t be the only issue on the commission’s plate in the coming year. Sullivan said funding for repair of roads and bridges remains a top concern for the commission.

“We are hoping that our legislative body will come up with a long-term sustainable plan that doesn’t have to be paid back,” Sullivan said. “We need funding for county roads and bridges that haven’t been touched since (former Alabama governor) ‘Big Jim’ Folsom had them paved.”

The commission was able to make some progress on resurfacing local roads for the first time in years as the commission approved a “24-month plan” to reallocate some county funds to address the worst roads in the commission’s purview.

The commissioners took $385,000 that had formerly been allocated annually from the road and bridge fund to go toward the debt reduction and diverted it for repairing local roads and bridges. Another $90,000 in savings from a reduction in the labor force in the road department was also reallocated for local roads and bridges and $125,000 annually during each of the two years is to come from the general fund.

In all, the program will provide $1.2 million toward local roads and bridges. Along with some federal grant funding, the plan will allow nearly 30 miles of road to be resurfaced and 24 timber-wood bridges to be replaced. There will also be a countywide striping project funded by the plan.

Four county roads were “rehabilitated” in 2018 The roads were CR2204 from CR2203 to CR2214, CR2243 from CR2246 to Warrick Circle, CR6629 and CR4413.

The $1.7 million federal aid rehabilitation project for portions of county roads 2290 and 2276 also began in 2018.

The commission had to make a leadership change in 2018 when Harry Sanders, county administrator for 16 years, announced that he would be retiring from the role.

The commission stagnated on the vote three separate times as half the commission voted for McKenzie Wilson to assume the role and the other half voted to hire Dr. LaKerri Mack for the position.

The commission finally came to a 4-2 vote to hire Wilson, who had been serving in the capacity on an interim basis since Sanders’ retirement.

Sullivan said the county has not “missed a beat” since Wilson took the job.

“It wasn’t ultimately that big of a change for Pike County because McKenzie had already been there and knew what was going,” Sullivan said. “She stepped up and has done a good job.”

The commission stepped into an unfamiliar position in 2018 with the recruitment of Rex Lumber under the 772 amendment that allows for county governments and municipalities to recruit certain businesses and industries for the purpose of economic development.

The City of Troy has used this tool several times since the state added the amendment to the constitution, but Sullivan said it was the first time the county has done anything on this level since the recruitment of Lockheed Martin, before he was on the commission.

“It’s a game-changer, from the amount of initial investment they made here to their future growth,” Sullivan said. “We recruited them to bring better quality of life for our citizens; that’s what we were after and that’s what we think we got. I’ve been on the commission since 2004, and there has not been anything equivalent to it. The only thing countywide before that was Lockheed Martin and that was a game-changer for the county as well.”

There is still some work for the commission to do in 2019, Sullivan said.

“We’ve got to make sure the roadwork gets done in 2019,” Sullivan said. “We’re moving forward with that process now; we’re waiting to open bids. We still have work to do getting the roads ready to handle the additional truck traffic.”