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20140425 Courthouse“I am so disappointed in the design presented by ERO Architects for the new courthouse,” OWLS (Objective Watchers of the Legal System) member Virginia Townsend told members of the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court in the Tuesday, April 22, meeting of the court.

“I was on the planning committee and went to every meeting,” she continued. “But the design presented last week was nothing like what we approved. We had a nice building that matched the design on the Museum of South Texas History so the designs around the square would match. We also had it divided into two towers, one for criminal courts and one for civil courts. The committee also planned to use the old historic courthouse to provide offices and possible additional court space for future use.

“There is too much glass in the design for South Texas where it is so hot. Electric bills for cooling will be very high. The design is impractical.”

“But the worst part is that no one is yet telling us how much we are going to have to pay for it.” Once priced at $75 million, Judge Ramon Garcia said in the previous meeting the price would be higher while ERO Architects refused to speculate on the total cost until final plans were completed.

OWL Fern McClaugherty told the court she had three callers protesting the design, who said it looked more like a resort hotel designed for an oceanfront view than a courthouse.

Following the meeting the Progress Times asked Townsend and other OWLS present about the original design. Townsend said the Burns family had offered to build a new county courthouse outside the city on land they owned. They had presented a nice building with plenty of parking. But the City of Edinburg had been against the idea because they wanted it to remain inside Edinburg city limits. The city offered up to $20 million in a previous meeting to help finance the courthouse so it would stay in the city, which would help the businesses surrounding the courthouse.

In the April 15 meeting, the $20 million promise had grown to $31 million on behalf of the city of Edinburg as long as they did not have to give it all up front.

A citizen listening to the conversation also expressed his displeasure with the design of the courthouse. He objected to the atrium in the center that would give the new courthouse ambient lighting and an interior design similar to that of Embassy Suites with its large atrium in the lobby. “Do we really need a courthouse with ambient lighting?” he asked.

The big concern in the city is the cost of the building. Townsend said she had received several calls to the effect the county commissioners were trying to get State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and State Representative Terry Canales to introduce two pieces of legislation. One would allow construction of the new courthouse in conjunction with private enterprise so that a bond election to pay for the courthouse would not be needed.

Townsend said having counties going into partnership with private enterprises to build courthouses is illegal so in order to do so it would take a special act of the Texas legislature to approve the action.

If a private company did build the courthouse, the county would then “rent” the courthouse from the private firm over the next 31 years. Renting would mean the private investor would be making money off renting the courthouse and taxpayers might end up paying twice as much for the building than if a bond election were held and approved, said Townsend.

The second piece of legislation would be to allow the existing courthouse, which has a historical designation on it to be torn down. None of the OWLS knew what the land would be used for after the building was demolished.

McClaugherty said people were calling her with concerns over the skyrocketing taxes Hidalgo County faces in the next few years. Paying for a new courthouse is not the only cost. Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 will be coming back soon for another tax increase to finish the drainage projects. “It’s only another two and a half cents they will tell the voters,” said McClaugherty.

Then there is the hospital district,” McClaugherty added. “Costs for the hospital district alone could add a tax burden as high as 75 percent of the current tax burden. People cannot afford to pay those kinds of taxes.”

Alex Palacios, construction manager, spoke to commissioners about the ongoing administration building renovation. He said the first floor sewer lines had been trenched and were ready for concrete to be poured by the end of the week. Some lines have been rerouted.

Piping for electrical lines are now in place. Crews worked during the holiday weekend to reroute electrical lines from the old system to the new system so that when everyone returned to work after the holiday the new system would go into use.

Pouring of concrete floors was to take place on Wednesday on the second floor. Wall infrastructure was in place for the first and second floors.

Savings on hardware has increased by $1000, bringing the total savings to $99,600.

To date the work is 36 percent completed and 13 percent of the money has been retained for emergencies. With seven months remaining on the project, those figures were very good, he said.

Under elections administration, eight members of the Democratic Party will serve on the voting ballot board for the primary runoff election to be held May 27. Kerma Giffin will be chairwoman. Four members of the Republican Party were appointed with Melissa Beall serving as chairwoman. It will be their duty to look at the mail-in and provisional ballots and decide whether or not to count them.

Under budget items, approval was given to transfer $390,000 to the City of Mission for Precinct #3 to be used as the county’s contribution to the interlocal agreement for Taylor Road improvements.

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