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Property chiefs differ on Capitol office consolidation but share other goals

By TED CARTER

As he has done for the past two years, House Public Properties Committee Chairman Tom Weathersby won’t let his panel hear Senate counterpart David Blount’s bill to consolidate more state offices in the downtown Jackson Capitol Complex.

Blount, chairman of the Senate Public Property Committee, has won near-unanimous passage of the bill the past three years only to have Weathersby give it the boot in the House. The rub for Weathersby is a provision that requires the Mississippi Department of Administration and Finance to negotiate office leases. Blount won’t take it out it just yet, thus the annual impasse.

“It is the best way to control costs,” Blount said in a recent interview.

“They see the big picture, and their focus is the state budget,” he added.

Blount noted legislative budget writers this session emphasized a desire to lower the state’s office leasing costs, something Blount says his bill will do at about $5 million a year. That should be sufficient to get the attention of House leaders, he said, adding he would welcome a chance to talk it over with them.

Weathersby, on the other hand, said “there are a lot of problems we see with the bill,” and hinted that even senators who voted for Blount’s bill voiced concerns to him over the legislation. “It’s amazing how people vote on a bill on one side and then come to me and say, ‘Please don’t vote on this.’”

While the chairman differ on bringing state offices across the metro area into the Central Business District, Weathersby the Republican and Blount the Democrat share a number of priorities and goals.

Renovating the 85,000 square-foot interior of downtown Jackson’s state-owned Clark office building at 302 Lamar St. is chief among them.

“We’re doing everything we can to get the Clark building open,” said Weathersby, who noted work on the exterior is substantially complete. The inside has heat, A/C, water and electricity but still needs interior walls, ceilings, floors and lighting.

The Mississippi State Personnel Board left the Clark building three years for leased space at Regions Plaza

The building’s interior work is estimated to cost $4.5 million. Their respective committees killed bills by Weathersby and Blount this session that would have  put the money into the bond bill.

Blount said he thinks public property projects such as the Clark building that require multi-year revenue commitments would fare better under bond bills that extend beyond the customary one year.

For instance, a bond bill of at least four years is critically needed to meet deferred maintenance and capital needs at Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges, Blount said.

Legislators began working with the Institutions of Higher Learning on such a plan.

Money for the universities and community colleges “needs to happen this year, so they can all make long-term plans on their building needs,” Blount said.

Weathersby said dormitories and other student housing at universities across the state need significant funding. But that need is the most urgent at Jackson State University, he said.

“We did a lot of bond work across the state on dorms but somehow Jackson State University wasn’t able to benefit,” he said, bemoaning the resulting movement of JSU students off campus and into motels on nearby High Street.

“We have a bill that will help these students,” he added. “This will put them back on campus.”

The bill, HB 885, passed Weathersby’s committee and the full House. It is headed for the Senate. A companion bill by Sen. John Horhn will get a vote in the House.

The measure authorizes the Institutions of Higher Learning to contract with a private developer to renovate and lease two of the dorms over a 40-year period with a pair of 5-year extensions. One of the building is vacant.

Plans also call for building an additional dorm, according to Weathersby.

“These new dorms will house over 1,200 students and then lead to (development) of 30 or so acres adjoining the campus,” he said.

Blount said the four-year capital plan also includes funding for new housing for married students at Mississippi State University and for converting a golf course owned by the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg into a business park.

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