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The inadequacy of the existing Hidalgo County Courthouse has been a topic of discussion with the Commissioners Court for a number of months. The current structure was built in 1954, and since that time, the county’s population has increased by an estimated 476 percent. Its present capacity has not matched the area’s growth challenges.

The Progress Times recently met with Judge Garcia, Chief of Staff Yolanda Chapa, Valde Guerra, Commissioner’s Court executive officer, and Budget Director Sergio Cruz to discuss the benefits of building a new courthouse versus the current costs of making housing adjustments on a case-by-case basis as needs arise.

. Originally built at 56,000 square feet, additions to the courthouse brought it to its current 193,000 square feet. A preliminary study done by ERO, which was given to commissioners in November, showed the courthouse needed 418,000 square feet to adequately house existing services. That need would expand to 500,000 square feet within 23 years.

For example, the 430th District Court is housed in a building near the judge’s administration facility instead of the courthouse. Four modular buildings are in the process of being added to the courthouse to hold additional courtrooms.

Based on budget figures provided by Cruz, Judge Garcia said the monthly lease cost for the 430th District Court is $10,189 or $122,268 a year. The current lease for the human resources office is $4500 a month or $54,000 a year.

Judge Garcia recently moved his office out of the Mediplex when the lease expired in December to another location. The least for the Mediplex was $23,600 a month or $283,200 a year. The Mediplex lease had been signed by another administration but Judge Garcia did not believe the judge’s office needed such an expensive place and selected a new location with a lease of $7903 a month, or $94,836 a year, at a savings of $15,000 a month.

“But that is not the only expense,” added the Judge. “Because the 430th District Court is not located in the courthouse, we also have to pay two additional security guards, and two extra court clerks to manage the separate facility. The cost of the two guards is about $90,000 a year while the clerks are about $70,000 a year so there is an extra $160,000 that would not be needed if the court were in the regular courthouse.”

The courtroom where juveniles are tried is located in a building on “M” Road owned by the county, and the county has to pay for two extra security guards and a clerk at that location.

According to Judge Garcia, the four modular courtrooms being added to the courthouse at a cost of $2 million will be less than it would cost to rent space at the prevailing $1 per square foot rate. At a rental cost of $600,000 a year, the modular plan will pay for itself in three years.

Since they are attached to the courthouse, an additional eight security guards will be needed at an estimated salary of $45,000. The Judge said the first year that expense would be $95,000 because each would be required to have a vehicle.

“As the county grows in size, the state is requiring us to provide different types of courts,” the judge added. As the seventh largest county in Texas and growing, he added, “…the potential for more state mandated courts is there.”

He noted that security is a relevant issue.

“Currently, we have only one entrance to the courthouse open. For security purposes the western entrance to the courthouse was closed by the Sheriff’s Department with construction of the modulars. That means jurors, attorneys, and defendants are all coming through the same doors,” he said.

In a new courthouse design there would be separate entrances for prisoners, who would use a secure Sally port, and other separate entrances each for judges, jurors and defendants.

The county commissioners have approved Requests for Proposals from 11 different architectural firms for construction of a new courthouse and plan to move construction planning forward in the next year. It should take five years for completion.

The new building will be located in place of the current courthouse parking lot to the east. It will be eight to nine stories to make room for existing courts and office space. Plans allow space for an additional four courts to be established in the next 20 to 40 years as mandated by the state.

Parking will shift to the old Robert’s Chevrolet location and other city lots would put most people within a five-minute walk to the courthouse.

The projected cost of the new building is currently estimated to be $88.5 million. Judge Garcia wants to see that come in under $75 million. The City of Edinburg has agreed to kick in $20 million, which the Judge said could go over $100 million with renovation of the old courthouse complex.

The old courthouse is a Texas Historical Building and cannot be torn down. After renovation it will be used for additional office space, other county functions not requiring a court, and possibly for civil and other low-risk court cases.

Judge Garcia and others feel the plan would take care of the courtroom needs of Hidalgo County for the next 50 years.

Upon completion, funds for current rent spaces will be applied to the payment and security costs of the new building. The central location will require less security guards and clerks overall.

The county faces a number of multi-layered economic problems which factor into the overall budgeting process, such as indigent healthcare, managing prison populations, and the federally-mandated rail system. The Commissioners Court is looking at the construction of a new courthouse as a way to relieve some of the financial pressure.

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