City's new safety complex awaits audit completion

By HASKEL BURNS,

With the exception of the historic Methodist hospital section, not much remains of the former Hattiesburg Police Department on James Street as officials continue to work toward a new Public Safety Complex that would provide a new home for HPD and municipal court staff.

Workers are still in the process of demolition at the site, with Hattiesburg City Council members recently voting to approve a change order for $38,680 to Codaray Construction for additional asbestos abatement. In addition, council members have approved a $1.03 million bid from C.B. Developers for infrastructure improvements at Katie Avenue and Arledge Street adjacent to the site.

With those developments – along with the upcoming completion of the 2017 Fiscal Year audit – Mayor Toby Barker hopes to recover the city’s bond rating with Moody’s, which was suspended last year because of the late completion of the Fiscal 0Year 2015 audit.

“So we could conceivably see going to bid for the Public Safety Complex in the first quarter of 2019,” Barker said.

The Public Safety Complex project, which has been discussed for the last several years as a solution to the police department’s aging facilities, took its first official step in September 2016 when municipal court moved from the James Street site to its temporary location in the former federal courthouse on West Pine Street. That move was followed by the Parks and Recreation Department, which moved from Katie Avenue to a new location at Tatum Park, allowing HPD’s dispatch to move temporarily into the Katie Avenue Building.

LIFE of Mississippi, which was located adjacent to the former HPD building, then moved into a new location on West 7th Street before HPD staff moved into their temporary location on Klondyke Street.

Some time after demolition on the James Street site is finished – minus the hospital section, which will stay intact – construction will begin at that location on the Public Safety Complex. That process is expected to take about four years, at which point HFP and municipal court will move into the new facility.

“I think it may be a little bit before we start working on the full construction,” City Council President Carter Carroll said. “We’ve got to wait until we get our audits in and get our Moody’s ratings back before we do any building or heavy construction.”

In addition to new digs for the police department and municipal court, initial plans for the Public Safety Complex included a new facility for Hattiesburg Fire Department administration, which is currently located on Corinne Street. But after the cost for the project rose from an estimated $25 million to as high as $40 million – with a cap of $32 million in between – Barker proposed scaling back the project, including starting without the fire administration building.

“We want to keep the amount that we borrow well under $30 million, so I would aim for the $27, $28 million mark,” he said. “Once we go with new bids, or look at public/private partnerships, that’s the amount that we’re looking to cap ourselves in terms of borrowing.

“We really want to make sure that we’re being fiscally responsible, that we’re not burdening the next administration and the next city council with a long-term lease that they can’t really afford.”

Officials have looked into the possibility of New Markets Tax Credits, which allow a private investor to receive tax credits for investing in certain community projects, to help fund the Public Safety Complex. But Barker said the credits aren’t the only option for the city to pursue.

“We’re going to look to straight-up bid it and take out bonds,” he said. “We’re going to look at going through the Southern Mississippi Planning & Development District, through some programs they have. The New Markets Tax Credits were (researched) as an option because several other projects suddenly came into this one.

“We see all these things as separate projects, and our priority right now is to build a police station and a municipal police station. All the other ancillary buildings that were talked about – while they may have value – we’re not going to run up the city debt just to include them.”

Barker said the Public Safety Complex is an example of the city council and administration working to put things in place to help recruit and retain police officers.

“The truth is, if we’re going to grow responsibly, we have to improve our manpower,” he said. “Having a world-class facility for our police officers to train and work in, as well as a competitive pay scale that they can count on and continuing education opportunities that will only exist in the city of Hattiesburg, will give us that edge.”