Order in the Court: Price tag will be high for needed improvements

Cramped former jail cells – from when the back portion of the current Baldwyn City Court building served as Baldwyn City Hall and Baldwyn’s City Jail – now hold court records. News Photos/Jason Collum

Much-needed updates could be coming to the Baldwyn City Court building in 2021, but with a steep price tag attached.

At its final meeting of the 2020 calendar year, Baldwyn Mayor Michael James informed the Baldwyn Board of Aldermen that preliminary estimates had been received on renovations to the court building. That cost is expected to be around $43,000.

Among the issues needed to be resolved at the building, which was previously used as Baldwyn City Hall, are a lack of adequate public and private restroom facilities, a lack of storage space, leaks in the roof which have damaged ceilings and walls in the building, and safety concerns discussed by the board as well as by City Court Judge Tommy Comer.

Comer addressed the Board of Aldermen in October and asked them then to not only move forward on repairs to the facility but to also consider hiring an assistant for Court Clerk Mariea Burress.

“With COVID going on we’ve had to utilize the whole building, Comer said at that meeting. “Something has to be done about the building.”

Comer told aldermen that many times there was no paper in the bathrooms, that Burress has an office that only two people can be in it at a time, and he had serious concerns about safety in the facility.

“Let me tell you about the people in Baldwyn,” Comer said. “We’ve got some good people, but we’ve got some bad people in Baldwyn. We’ve got some people in there (who) I’m thinking they’re going to come over the podium and get me. These people have an attitude – white, black, whatever. I’ve got to be stern with them. I’ve got to raise my voice and they don’t like that. We’ve got security while court is going on. (Clerk Burress) has got a lot of money and handles this while court is going on. I’m afraid one of these days somebody’s going to go through that locked door and go after her.”

Conditions at the building have been discussed by the Baldwyn Board before, but no real movement has been made. Repairs have been made to portions of the building following water damage from leaks. However, there are some concerns now that the building could also be at risk of holding mold. In the past Alderman at Large Lynda Conlee discussed concerns that money was not available to address the situation, but Mayor James said it was. Comer, for his part, pointed out the revenue produced by the court could cover the deficiencies.

Comer said that according to his records the city has collected $107,000 in seven years in court costs and fees, and with the current docket load – 200 or more cases are heard at the court each month – and the addition of an assistant clerk, Burress could be freed up to seek out and write grant requests that could provide additional funding.

“I’m really begging you to do something to that building to make it a nice place,” Comer said. “It is a nice place; it just needs to be nicer. It’s been in disrepair for a while. And get (Burress) an assistant so we can progress like we have in the past. I’d like to work with the city to make improvements in that building. And I’d like to see if we could get some kind help for the court clerk, maybe a part-time clerk. While she’s there she takes calls from the police, etc. She keeps a log of every call. I don’t see how she gets anything done.”

Comer noted that of all the city courts he works with, Baldwyn’s is the only court with just one clerk; every other court has at least two.

Wrapping up the year

The matter of the renovation estimates came at the end of what was an otherwise brief end-of-year board meeting. In other action the Board:

  • Agreed to close a portion of Nelson Drive and deed the property to Walter Prather who built a house and doesn’t need that street anymore.
  • Contracted the services of Dawn Coon to assist with the 2021 municipal election. Coon will set up voting machines, train the poll workers and handle other duties for the city at a cost of $1,500 for each election. If there are no runoffs there will not be a June election.
  • Hired Joey Dearman as a full-time police officer. James Brown was named as the assistant chief and investigator. The Board also decided that from now on the roles of assistant police chief and investigator will be a combined position.
  • Accepted the resignations of Jeremy Bass and John Harper from the Gas & Water Department. 
  • Hired William Stinson at the Gas & Water Department.The next meeting of the Board of Aldermen is set for Tuesday, Jan. 5 at 6 p.m. at Baldwyn City Hall. Social distancing will continue to be observed and mask use will be required.