County vs. Ausbern trial underway

1STOCK COURT NEWS Gavel On FlagHOUSTON – A long-running lawsuit between Chickasaw County and Ausbern Construction was slated to be heard Monday morning, in Lafayette County and could end more than two years of legal wrangling.

Ausbern seeks payment for work the company did for the county almost three years ago. Circuit Court Judge Andrew Howorth has already ruled the bill is owed and has asked both parties to reach an agreement through mediation. Ausbern is also suing for damages.

“We have been talking back and forth through attoneys for some time,” said District 4 Supervisor Jerry Hall. “We just can’t seem to get this settled and the details worked out. I think everyone will be glad to get this behind them.”

Ausbern Construction is owned by the family of former Chickasaw County Board of Supervisors Attorney Elizabeth Ausbern. That circumstance prompted the county to hire the firm of Carnathan & McAuley, of Tupelo, to handle legal duties for the Board of Supervisors. Ausbern no longer serves as the board attorney.

The political nature of the case has also prompted the court to change the venue. Explaining the case involves the county, prominent elected officials, concerns of a tax increase and pre-trial publicity, Howorth ruled in March 2013 the trial would be moved from Chickasaw County.

Howorth also said he had hoped parties in the suit could reach an agreement and that a change of venue would not be needed.

Ausbern’s lead-attorney Mark Herbert has said his client met with mediators in Greenwood and agreed to settle for damages of $220,000. Herbert said the county countered with an offer of about $30,000.

“We have never denied the question that we owe him for some dirt,” said Hall. “The amount may be in question. They are also asking for damages.”

At the heart of the case is the payment for grading and resurfacing 1.39-miles of County Road 4. Ausbern’s bid of $396,566 for the work was accepted by the county and awarded on Nov. 23, 2010.

The suit filed by Ausbern Construction said the county breached its contract and Ausbern is owed not less than $220,000 in damages. Ausbern’s attorney Sabrina Ruffin has said damages in the case could top $1 million.

In papers filed with the court, Ausbern said the suit and lack of payment has affected his ability to secure bids, loans and security bonds.

One of the major reasons the change of venue was sought was to keep jurors worried about property taxes going up, should the case go against the county, out of the jury pool.

Motions filed by Carnathan said the county has tried to point out the extra gravel needed by Ausbern should have been addressed in a change order and decided by all parties before the work was done.

Ausbern Construction filed a suit against the Chickasaw County Board of Supervisors and Springer Engineering in early 2012 seeking payment for work the company did at the alleged direction of the county and its engineer.

Ausbern Construction’s suit contends Springer underestimated the amount of material needed to resurface the road, knew Ausbern Construction would be putting down 19,944-cubic yards of materials on a bid that specified 7,689-cubic yards and that Springer failed to notify state and local authorities of this change so Ausbern Construction could be paid accordingly.

A letter from State Aid District Engineer Joel S. Bridges dated Feb. 2, 2012 recommended payment for 17,700-cubic yards. The letter also said there was an error in the plans used to bid the job.

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