Magistrates approve tentative purchase of old First & Farmers branch at Grand Central Place 

Janie Slaven | CJ

Pulaski County Fiscal Court voted 3-1 Tuesday to start the process of purchasing the old First and Farmers branch at Grand Central Place on behalf of the county clerk's office.

The Pulaski County Clerk's Office is continuing to grow by leaps and bounds.

To close out Tuesday's meeting of Pulaski County Fiscal Court, members entered into a near half-hour executive session in part to discuss potential property acquisition.

As the court reconvened in open session, Judge-Executive Steve Kelley announced that while no action was taken behind closed doors, magistrates would be entertaining a couple of motions in public.

The first involved the purchase of the former First & Farmers branch located at Grand Central Place for $1.025 million pending property inspection, appraisal and state approval. The branch building was vacated after First & Farmers moved its headquarters from downtown Somerset to South US 27 in the fall of 2019.

In announcing that the purchase would be for the clerk's office, Judge Kelley noted the move was "due to COVID complications with our current lease at the [Somerset] Mall branch.

"We're not able to serve the public the way we need to," the judge said, "and this will give us drive-thru capabilities plus better access for our public."

Judge Kelley added that the county's lease with the mall, which expires at the end of 2022 with County Clerk Linda Burnett's current term, didn't always cover maintenance issues so purchasing a building "would be an improvement in that regard."

District 5 Magistrate Mike Strunk's motion to make the purchase was approved on a three to one vote, with District 3 Magistrate Jimmy Wheeldon unable to attend due to technical difficulties as he continues to recuperate at home. Strunk was joined by District 1 Magistrate Jason Turpen and District 2 Magistrate Mike Wilson, who had seconded the motion, in voting for the purchase. District 4 Magistrate Mark Ranshaw voted against it.

"I agree there's a need for the building," Magistrate Ranshaw said, "but I'm still in disagreement at the timing of the purchase."

Judge Kelley then asked for a second motion to apply for an interest-only loan for up to one year to cover the purchase.

"We're hoping this will be financed through our ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds that we're receiving from the federal government," the judge explained. "This interest-only loan will give us time to sort through that. However, should that fall through, we do feel like Linda's office is generating revenue and this will allow her to generate enough revenue to sustain the payments."

The loan motion was approved by the same margin as that of the purchase. Once the votes were completed, Judge Kelley concluded the meeting by saying he looks forward to a new chapter in the clerk's office.

Magistrate Ranshaw said after the meeting that his concern was that the county is not yet sure how much federal relief funding they'll receive. With the county budget already strapped and other areas such as the road system in dire need, he didn't want to rush into spending more than $1 million on property.

"To me, it's just not the right time," Ranshaw said. ".…We can't even take care of our county road system maintenance-wise the way it needs to be taken care of because of financial issues. That should come first, in my opinion."

Magistrate Ranshaw continued that he had nothing against the project itself but didn't see a need to hurry, particularly since the newest clerk's branch -- handling motor vehicle licensing at the former BB&T branch on North Main Street -- opened less than a year ago. "What happens if we don't get this federal money that they're talking about?" he asked.

The county purchased that facility in 2019 for $535,000. The success of the MVL branch, which opened last July, could be considered a major factor in the clerk's desire to expand. Where Burnett's staff is currently making good use of the former BB&T's one drive-thru lane, the First & Farmers property has three.

"I think it's a good move because people love that drive-thru," Burnett said.

Chief Deputy Clerk Samantha Owens, who runs the MVL branch, added, "It stays lined up constantly."

If all goes as planned, Burnett estimated that it would be late summer before the new purchase can be completed.

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