The leadership of the Mississippi House of Representatives last week rebuffed a late-inning effort to salvage a move of the Mississippi Department of Revenue into downtown Jackson’s Landmark Center.
House leaders are said to have no appetite for dealing with the DOR headquarters issue this year.
State Sen. John Horhn tried to resurrect DOR headquarters’ legislation that died on April 3 when the House Public Property Committee declined to advance a bill sponsored by state Sen, David Blount, a Jackson area Democrat. Horhn had hoped to insert the headquarters legislation into a House bill under consideration in the Senate, which has previously approved the $14.1 million purchase of the Landmark Center.
House leaders told him not to bother. Any DOR-related amendment would be stripped once it got to conference committee, Horhn said.
“I identified a couple of House bills in the Senate that could be amended to include authorizing language for the Department of Finance and Administration to acquire the Landmark Center,” Horhn said. “In talking to the leadership there just doesn’t seem to be an appetite for dealing with the Department of Revenue for this year.”
The senator said he thinks a desire to put the headquarters in Clinton, or at least keep it in neighboring Raymond, caused the loss of appetite. House Speaker Philip Gunn represents Clinton.
“This has less to do about Jackson and more to do with Clinton,” Horhn said. He noted people in Clinton have grown to have “a great appreciation” for the 500-employee headquarters being in neighboring Raymond.
Several supporters of the move to the Landmark Center say Gunn ordered Public Property Committee Chairman Tom Weathersby to spike the bill. Rep. Weathersby denied that claim, insisting he does not take orders from Gunn. The Speaker has not responded to a request for comment.
Weathersby would not say why the legislation did not get an up-or-down vote to move it to the House floor. He would say only that the panel “did not see fit to let the legislation proceed.”
Sen. Blount, a first-year legislator whose district includes both Jackson and Clinton, said Weathersby and the chairman’s staff told him why. Blount, however, said he will not reveal what he was told.
Rep. Cecil Brown, a Jackson Democrat and member of the Public Property panel, said he is in the dark as much as anyone. “There’s been no explanation to the Hinds County delegation on why that would happen,” he said of the killing of Blount’s bill.
Also in the dark is Revenue Commissioner Ed Morgan, who oversees the Department of Revenue. He said in an interview last week he is frustrated and at a loss to say what killed the Landmark bill.
“I share your desire for those unanswered questions to be answered,” he said, adding he was “taken aback” by the 11th-hour decision to reject the purchase of the Landmark Center, a nearly 345,000 square-foot building at 175 East Capitol Street.
“Someone needs to determine if there was a problem.”
The lengthy exile to Raymond has already taken a toll on the department, Morgan said. Extending it further only worsens things, he added.
“Delaying another year after a 15-year delay is causing some real problems with employees, with morale and recruiting people to work in this facility,” Morgan said. “A holding pattern very much hurts our operation.”
The Landmark Center emerged as the top-ranked site for the DOR home in a study done last fall by international real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield at the request of then-Gov. Haley Barbour. The study projected that buying the building would save the state $17 million compared to building a new headquarters on state-owned land. In terms of square-footage, buying the Landmark would cost about $40 a square-foot compared to $250-to-$300 a square-foot for new construction, according to Cushman & Wakefield.
Where the quest to find a home for the DOR goes from here is uncertain, according to Morgan, who in previous years has participated in exhaustive searches for an appropriate building or site.
“I’m pretty much at a loss right now what is the most appropriate direction. We have gone through a long process over the years and a number of studies to get where we were before the House didn’t take up the issue.”
No other buildings are out there that meet the DOR’s requirement for at least 200,000 square feet of space, according to Morgan. Morgan said the Department of Finance and Administration, or DFA, will be “quarterbacking the issue” from here on.
Kevin Upchurch, DFA executive director, said the demise of the legislation took him by surprise and he will have to begin exploring options anew.
“I wasn’t prepared for where we are right now,” said Upchurch, whose department oversees state facilities.
He said he will see what can be done to make the metal warehouse the DOR occupies in Raymond more livable for the time being.
The state moved the department into the former Mississippi Power Co. equipment storage warehouse 15 years ago in what was suppose to be a 3-year-stay to allow for renovations of the state’s Woolfolk building.
The lease on the building at 1577 Springridge Road expires in 2014. Owner Billy Deviney did not return a call seeking to find whether he would be willing to extend the lease.
Morgan, the revenue commissioner, said he thinks the state would be wasting money to fix up a building that the DOR may be forced to vacate by its landlord. “What wisdom is there to be spending a lot of money on a building that ultimately you are going to be moving out of in 2014.”
If asked, however, Morgan said he could get a punch list of repairs together.
Meanwhile, the state bond issue that cleared the House includes $18.1 million for the purchase of the Landmark Center but with no legislation authorizing the purchase, the money can’t be spent, the Department of Finance and Administration says.