Bigger may not be better post-Katrina

Bigger may not be better post-Katrina
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)
(Photo source: WLOX)

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Before Katrina, Jackson County offices were scattered about, including some at the fairgrounds. That changed three years ago with the opening of a new building, the public services complex, built at a cost of $16 million.

As county administrator Brian Fulton explains, there's a hitch.

"The energy costs are probably more expensive, but in the long haul, I think we're better off being in one location," said Fulton.

Here's an example of those costs: Power bills are averaging about $130,000 a year, an average of $10,800 a month. That doesn't include maintenance costs.

But, there are benefits, according to Fulton.

"It's a modern building. It's built to the new FEMA flood elevations and much more resilient if we had a hurricane or another natural disaster," Fulton said. "One of the unique things about this building is that it combines all the services within Jackson County into one central location, which make it a lot more convenient people trying to look into land records or pay their taxes."

In Biloxi, the new library and civic center cost $17 million. The visitor's center cost $13 million. Those are real numbers. Something else is real too, according to city chief administrative officer David Nichols.

"The visitor's center electricity costs and insurance costs is huge," said Nichols.

How huge? Power costs at the old visitor's center on the town green were $3,000 in 2005.  In the new building, those costs were $108,000 in 2014.

Nichols said savings have been found elsewhere.

"We were able to combine a lot of buildings into one larger building, and that helps up on manpower," said Nichols.

Nichols explained the new center is also a money maker.

"Every weekend is booked for the next year, and then we have events that are scheduled during the week. The city uses it, so it generates a tremendous amount of revenue," said Nichols.

In Pass Christian, the new $4 million police station and emergency operations center sits high and dry. It had to be built in the very northeast part of the city because of FEMA requirements.

Something else is high as well; city utility costs. Pre-Katrina bills for the city averaged $250,000 a year. Now, it's $318,000.

When Mayor Chipper McDermott saw the first bill after the complex was built, what was his reaction?

"I was absolutely shocked, and that's what I'm saying. Every one of the guys said the mayor thinks the utilities are too high and I said absolutely we do," McDermott recalled.

City officials have since ordered cutbacks in power usage, but the bills are still high.

Now that the new police and fire departments have been built in the City of Pass Christian and the costs have escalated, I asked McDermott if he had to do it all over again, would he do it the same way.

"If I would have had my choice, I would have built the police station downtown where it was before, up in the air," said McDermott.

For the bottom line, is bigger actually better? The mayor has an answer.

"In some cases, you could say bigger was questionable, but in most cases I think it was good."

Several other cities on the Coast have built back much bigger since Katrina, including Moss Point and Long Beach, each with new city halls paid for almost entirely by FEMA.

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