Municipal Complex committee tours City Hall
Starkville’s fourth committee formed to advise city officials on plans for a municipal complex got a good look at the current one Tuesday.
Members, including chair Roy Ruby and Bethany Stich, walked through small, paneled rooms packed with filing cabinets, desks and staff who have barely enough room to walk.
Mayor Parker Wiseman said the objective of the group’s first meeting was for them to see every part of City Hall.
“It was important for the committee that is making recommendations of the needs of a municipal complex to familiarize themselves with our current conditions,” he said. “I don’t think the average citizen sees many parts of this building.”
The Municipal Court offices are among the most cramped work areas.
“Sometimes they trip over each other,” said Municipal Court Administrator Tony Rook, referring to the court clerks.
Rook guided the committee through a hallway where additional criminal records sit without security and then through a storage room where a wired gate that he built himself minimally secures large stacks of more records.
“Two weeks ago, you couldn’t see the floor,” he said.
The tall ceiling and walls of “the stage” are made of dry wood.
“Can you imagine what would happen if someone dropped a cigarette in here?” Rook said.
Municipal Court sessions, which occur four times a week, are also a hassle for every party involved: Witnesses have no separate rooms, defense attorneys have no room to meet with their clients while prosecutors have no room to meet with victims, Rook and municipal court judge Rodney Faver share a 10 x 10 office and defendants have to loiter in the hallway to comply with fire codes.
The courtroom, where the Board of Aldermen and Planning and Zoning Commission also regularly meet along with local civic groups, has no witness stand — just a chair in the middle of the courtroom in front of the judge where the witness can testify.
"All of the tasks associated with the administration of justice within the the city have to go on within the same room," Wiseman said.
The current City Hall building also poses safety hazards as prisoners have neither a holding facility or a partition between themselves and victims or their families in the courtroom, and the public has no banister to separate themselves from the front of the courtroom.
Additionally, inmates are left standing in the middle of City Hall's main hallway with general members of the public when discussing their case with defense attorneys.
What's worse, officials say, is the single, one-stall, unisex bathroom available to courtroom full of people with nervous stomachs.
"That's ridiculous," Rook said.
One of the two entrances to City Hall is handicapped accessible but has major ceiling damage.
"It's just an eyesore," Rook said. "It doesn't look professional. It doesn't look nice... Unfortunately many members of the public perceive professionalism by initial impressions."
Wiseman stressed the importance the public gaining knowledge of the building's inadequacies.
"The overall picture that you see when you tour this building is that it is extremely overcrowded and stretches to serve the function that it has to in many cases," Wiseman said.
The Mississippi National Guard donated the facility to the city in 1968, and since then, the city's population has steadily grown and, thus, its services and staffing.
As a result in 2010, city personnel do their work packed in every nook and cranny of the building, Wiseman added.
"It's a product of growth," he said. "And not only is there any other place to grow, but we've truly reached a point where the space constraints and their present condition pose safety concerns and significantly hamper the ability of the city staff to do its work."
And the most critical and pressing needs lie within the Municipal Court and the Police Department, officials say.
Walking around the outside of City Hall, Police Chief David Lindley just discovered it had no plaque or corner stone signifying its origin.
"Isn't that wild," he said.
Lindley, who also took the committee on a tour, said the facility was built by people put to work by former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal Agency, Works Progress Administration, the country's largest employer until World War II.
Before the National Guard's donation, Starkville's police headquarters consisted of a telephone pole on Lampkin Street with officers patrolling Main Street on foot.
Calls were diverted to People's Cafe, which would notify one of the officers.
Since the donation, the building has undergone a series of add-ons and renovations, Lindley said.
"Over the years we eventually absorbed all available space," he said of the now four-level facility.
Citing reservations on spending, Starkville officials have thrown away multiple chances to adequately house the police force, while construction costs continued to rise.
The city could have bought the Southern Billiards property next door for $25,000, but officials hesitated to spend the money, Lindley remembers.
Officials also backed down on the chance to buy the post office building on Russell Street for $1 million.
"That wasn't pursued aggressively," Lindley said.
And in 1998 Robert Rogers donated the first Wal-Mart site on Highway 12 so the city could house both the police and electric departments, but officials decided to keep its $3 million value for other projects.
In 2002, the city could have again provided a facility for its police officers further down Highway 12 for a cost of $5.2 million.
"People decided it was too much money to spend, so that project failed," Lindley said.
Three years later, a $10 million piece of property on Lampkin Street was rejected due to cost, he remembers.
"Every time it came up, people decided it was not the appropriate time and someone had a better idea and thought we should delay the project," he said.
Meanwhile, police officers continue their work under a leaky roof and a basement that floods during extremely heavy rains, in narrow halls, poor building security and cramped, crammed office spaces.
The dispatchers have no separate heating and cooling system, and the booking station dually functions an in-person reporting area, mixing citizens and prisoners in a small room.
Plus, Lindley said, the building's overall appearance does not adequately represent the goals of the Police Department.
"Public safety is one of the primary building blocks of a successful community," he said. "The fact that the city has never built a police headquarters in its entire history speaks for itself."
The police force, however, will always to the best they can with the resources available, Lindley said.