EDINBURG, April 16 - Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia is looking for the Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation to pass a bill un-designating the county courthouse as an historic building so that it can be demolished.
Hidalgo County Commissioners, along with Edinburg City Councilmembers, watched a presentation Tuesday about the construction of a new county courthouse. Garcia said if the current courthouse was torn down it would make more space for a new one.
“We are going to talk to the legislators and see if they can pass legislation so that the courthouse is not designated an historic building,” Garcia told the Guardian. “If it was demolished it would save us from having to spend about $20 million on remodeling and renovating.”
The two state legislators who represent Edinburg are Sen. Juan Hinojosa and Rep. Terry Canales. Both said they want to explore Garcia’s request. Canales said that back in the 1970s the Legislature passed legislation to preserve old county courthouses. The Hidalgo County Courthouse was largely built in the 1950s.
“Our current courthouse is not big enough for our needs and it is not safe. It is not safe for our judges and it is not safe for the public when prisoners are brought in. So, we need to fix the safety issues and the space issues,” Canales said.
“As for modifying the courthouse or tearing it down, it is definitely in the realm of possibility. I believe there is historical significance to a building built in the 1950s. However, I do not think the historical significance of our courthouse is enough to stop us from progressing. I believe we can file a bill exempting our courthouse from historical designation. At that point the question becomes are we going to demolish it or remodel it and add on to it?”
Canales added that county commissioners have spent “an exorbitant amount of money on a trailer park fix” in order to cope with overcrowding. “So many people are dissatisfied with that,” he said.
Sen. Hinojosa said he is researching the possibility of undoing the Hidalgo County Courthouse’s historical designation.
“We have to preserve our historical courthouses but some are not worth preserving. With some courthouses, the cost of fixing the defects, the asbestos issues, are great. Even with the help of the state, counties cannot maintain them,” Hinojosa said. He gave an example of Nueces County’s courthouse, which, he said, is crumbling.
“You have to be more realistic and have more flexibility so the state and the local community can negotiate and come up with a plan on whether the building is really historical or whether it just fell into an arbitrary cut off point for the year it was built. It would seem to me we would look to secure legislative flexibility on the designation of historical courthouses,” Hinojosa said.
Another area where local legislators can be of assistance is determining if a private entity can own a public building such as a courthouse. This may be of benefit in the case of Hidalgo County because Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia is promoting the idea of a public-private partnership. Under this scenario, a private developer would build a new courthouse and lease it back to the county. In time, the county would own the building.
Mayor Garcia is promoting a public-private partnership because he does not want to increase taxes to pay for a new courthouse. The firm designing the new Hidalgo County Courthouse, Ero Architects of McAllen, will provide county commissioners with an estimated project cost within the next couple of weeks. Mayor Garcia is hoping the cost will be under $150 million.
“In Long Beach, California, the state retained ownership of a courthouse built by a private developer and it became more of a mortgage situation than a lease back. The best route for us to take, so there is no doubt about legalities, is for our legislators to do a local bill allowing for this in Hidalgo County,” Mayor Garcia said.
“From the comments they (Ero) made today, it is clear they are paving the way for it being a lot more than what we were talking about. How much will it be? We will see. I am a realist. I know it is going to be well over $100 million.”
Judge Garcia said he wants the Valley’s legislative delegation to pass a bill allowing for a public-private partnership, in case that is the route county commissioners take.
“You are never going to defer the cost from the taxpayer. The taxpayer will be the ultimate payer of the cost of the debt. It is a matter of when it is going to be paid. I can appreciate Mayor Garcia’s public-private partnership concept. But, there is an opinion issued right now that says it is not legal, that we cannot allow a private developer to own a public building such as a courthouse,” Judge Garcia said.
The presentation on the new courthouse was made by Eli Ochoa and Brian Godinez of Ero Architects. Godinez said the cost of the project would be announced in a couple of weeks. He provided the elected officials present with a word of caution: construction costs are going up rapidly in Texas. “Escalating construction costs are rising about ten percent a year,” he said.
The idea is to build a ten-floor building with 24 courtrooms. One floor would be basically left empty in anticipation of more courtrooms being added. Escalators would be provided to reach the first six floors because of the anticipated volume of visitors. Each of the 24 courtrooms would seat 100 people. “There is an urgent need for a new courthouse,” Godinez said.