County buys building; judge mum on use

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Barnett says purchase of bank leaves taxpayers ‘out on a limb’

By Ben Carlson

The Anderson County Fiscal Court narrowly approved purchasing the Town & Country Bank building on Main Street for $260,000 last Wednesday, but the judge-executive isn’t saying yet what it will be used for.
Speculation is that it will become the new home of the Anderson County Clerk’s office, but following the 4-3 vote during a special-called meeting last Wednesday morning, Judge-Executive John Wayne Conway said that’s not necessarily the case.
“There’s a possibility of that,” said Conway. “There’s also the possibility that the judge-executive’s office may go there, or the PVA, or the county surveyor or maybe even planning and zoning.”
Conway, who was joined by magistrates David Ruggles, Juretta Wells and Forest Dale Stevens in voting for the purchase, said nothing in the motion to purchase the property included the intended use of the property before it was passed.
“Nowhere in the motion was that it was made to purchase a building for the county clerk,” Conway said, adding that the motion was made by Wells and seconded by Ruggles.
Conway said the purchase is contingent on the building’s appraisal and an inspection.
Magistrates for months have been meeting in closed session to discuss property acquisition, and there has been no small amount of speculation that it was to purchase a new office location for Clerk Jason Denny, whose office is now located in the county courthouse and widely considered too cramped.
The county owns the courthouse and charges the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) rent for the district and circuit courtrooms upstairs, along with the Clerk of Circuit Court on the ground level. Only Denny’s office is not required to pay rent because it is part of county government.
The rationale was that if Denny’s office moves out, AOC would rent Denny’s current location for roughly $20,000 per year, providing the fiscal court with additional revenue that could be used to make payments on a new location — a location that would be larger and allow Denny adequate storage for vital records and voting equipment.
Magistrate Kenny Barnett, who was joined by magistrates Buddy Sims and David Montgomery in voting against the purchase, said there has been plenty of discussion about a new clerk’s office, but isn’t convinced that purchasing the bank location was a good idea.
“I don’t want to hang taxpayers out on a limb,” Barnett said, adding that there is nothing certain about AOC renting additional space in the courthouse. “There’s nothing in writing to say they will. [AOC] was paying $18,000 a year for the space they’ve got, but dropped that $9,000 this past year.
“It’s been said they were going to get paid $24,000 a year for what Jason had and we could put it toward the payment, which makes a lot of sense, but not if they don’t pay anything.”
Barnett said he’s also concerned about the high cost of utilities on the bank property, which he said could be as much of $35,000 to $40,000 a year.
“John Wayne figured it at about $4,000 a month,” Barnett said. “That alone is $36,000.”
Conway said later that estimate would include the debt payment on the building.
The bank building is an estimated 9,000 square feet, including a large basement, according to information obtained from Brian Stivers, the county’s property value administrator. Stivers said the parking lot and drive-thru area are currently assessed at $105,000, and that the building is assessed at $350,000, meaning the fiscal court purchased an assessed value of $455,000 for $260,000.
Conway said the county had been in discussion with Town & Country to purchase the building for some time.
“I let [county clerk] Jason [Denny] do the negotiations,” Conway said. “He got it down to $300,000 and said that was the bottom line. That’s when I told him I’d start negotiating. I told [the bank] I’d give them $250,000, and they said they couldn’t do that, and I said that’s my officer … that’s where I stand.
“Two weeks later they called back and said they’d take $260,000.”
Magistrate Wells said her preference would be that it be used for the clerk’s office due to space concerns not only there, but in other areas of the courthouse.
“It’s the perfect solution for the space problem,” she said, adding that the building’s vaults would be a good solution to securely storing court and possibly jail records.
Magistrate Sims, who voted against the purchase because he isn’t convinced it’s needed.
“Number one, I think it’s probably more building than we need,” Sims said, adding that with new computer systems coming to the clerk’s office in January, the public will be able to access records online instead of going to the courthouse.
Sims said he’s also concerned about AOC eventually building a new courthouse here, similar to the one it built several years ago in Mercer County.
“Right now that’s on hold,” he said. “If something happens and they [build one], now what do we do?”
Magistrate Montgomery said he voted no because the county doesn’t need to purchase another building.
“We have plenty of buildings now,” he said. “We didn’t need something else to eat up more electricity and everything else.”