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Members of the Lee County Board of Supervisors in April listen to a presentation by consultant Tom Weber on conditions of the county’s justice system.

TUPELO • Lee County supervisors have made moves that could lead to the allocation of $85 million in bonded debt for the construction or renovation of a slate of county buildings, primarily the Lee County Adult jail.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a resolution notifying the public that it intends to issue up to $85 million in general obligation bonds for the construction of a “judicial complex,” a public library and other county buildings.

The earliest date the county board can begin the process of issuing the bonds is Aug. 2 during its regular meeting. However, county officials, at least for now, maintain that there are no immediate plans to issue any bonds.

State law gives the county board two years after Aug. 2 to follow through with its intent and issue the bonds. If the board lets the two-year window expire, then it would have to re-issue the notice of intent and start the process over again.

“With interest rates as they are right now, the concern was, if we didn’t go ahead and be prepared if the board decides to move forward, then we would get caught with a rising interest rate and not be in a position to do anything,” Lee County administrator Benson said.

Voters could force an election on bond debt

The county will conduct a public hearing at 9 a.m. on Aug. 2 to allow the general public to speak on the proposal. Benson said that there is currently no intent to issue the bonds on that date or anytime soon thereafter.

However, the board could be forced to abandon its plans to issue bonds on its own if enough opposition mounts to the proposal.

State law says that if either 20% of the qualified electors in the county or 1,500 qualified electors – whichever is less – file a written petition with the clerk of the governing authority to oppose the issuance of the bonds, then the county must conduct an election on the question of the bonds.

In the instance of Lee County, if 1,500 voters file a written objection before the Aug. 2 meeting with the Lee County Chancery Clerk regarding the bonds, then the county will be forced to conduct an election seeking voter approval if it ever wants to issue the bonds.

Lee County Adult Jail a major item

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Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson walks through the holding cell area inside the Lee County Adult Jail in this March 11, 2021, file photo.

Although the world “jail” is not mentioned in the resolution, the bonds would almost certainly go toward the construction of a new jail – a thorny and contentious issue in county politics for years.

County supervisors have tried to create a solution to the issue with leaders in the city of Tupelo and state legislators, but they have never been able to gain any traction.

The resolution states that any potential bonded debt would also go toward renovating the Lee County Library.

Supervisors have also wanted to repair portions of the steps at the old Lee County courthouse, which houses the county’s tax collector and assessor offices.

Tax increase likely

If the board wanted to take on the bonded debt, an increase in ad valorem taxes would be very likely.

At the current interest rate, Benson estimates that if the county were to issue around $50 million in bonds, then ad valorem taxes would increase by around 3.6 mills. Benson also estimates that if the board were to issue $80 million in bonds, ad valorem taxes would increase by around 5.74 mills to service the debt.

District 4 Supervisor Billy Joe Holland, the president of the board, did not provide much insight into ongoing discussions regarding the bonds or what the mood of the supervisors is regarding following through with the notice of intent.

“I haven’t seen the exact resolution,” Holland said.

Holland echoed many of Benson’s sentiments and said that the intent is to give the county a two-year cushion to continue deliberations.

Consultant suggested new justice complex

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Consultant Tom Weber presented members of the Lee County Board of Supervisors a report on conditions of the county’s justice system during an April 2021 board meeting.

The resolution comes at a time when a Guntown citizen filed a lawsuit in federal court against Lee County alleging that “harsh, arbitrary and inhuman” conditions exist at the jail.

But Holland said the notice of intent is a direct response to the presentation that a consultant delivered to the board earlier this year on the conditions of the Lee County adult jail.

The county board in April heard from a paid consultant who put a nearly $80 million price tag on the construction of a comprehensive law enforcement complex – which includes a new jail, administration and court facilities.

The consultant, Tom Weber, estimated that the construction of a new jail facility alone – with 320 beds for the bulk of inmates and an additional 80 for inmates with more specific needs – could cost $50 million.

But Weber also advised the board to spend around $20 million in additional expenses to improve the overall conditions of the county’s criminal justice system by building a new morgue, administrative office building for the sheriff’s department and an E911 system.

Holland said that he had not had any recent conversations with fellow supervisors on the board about the timing of a final decision about whether or not to actually issue the bonds.

“We haven’t had that discussion really,” Holland said. “This notice just gives people the nod that we may go ahead to do it.”

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