AUSTIN, Texas – Under legislation authored by two South Texas legislators, anyone who files a civil case or records real estate property in Hidalgo County will be contributing to the cost of building a new county courthouse.
A fee of $20 per civil case and a fee of $10 per real estate property record would be levied under a bill authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. Senate Bill 1964 states that the money raised would go towards constructing a new courthouse.
The aim of Hinojosa’s legislation, and that of a similar bill filed in the Texas House by state Rep. Armando Martinez, is to avoid having to ask Hidalgo County taxpayers to pay for the construction of a new courthouse. It is estimated that a new courthouse could cost more than $150 million.
Laying out House Bill 2868, Martinez said Hidalgo County has established a partnership with the City of Edinburg. “That city will cover 20 to 25 percent of the cost for the new courthouse,” Martinez said. Edinburg is the county seat of Hidalgo County.
“The purpose of House Bill 2868 is to establish funding dedicated to the construction of a new Hidalgo County Courthouse,” Martinez testified. “Currently, the Hidalgo County Courthouse does not have the capacity to meet the needs of Hidalgo County due to the growth in the area. The current county courthouse was constructed in 1954 and it was used to accommodate five courts serving a small rural community with a population of about 168,000. Today, there are over 24 courts serving a population of nearly 900,000 residents.”
In actual fact, Martinez said, Hidalgo County’s population is probably more than one million because there was a large undercount at the last census.
Martinez said renovations can no longer alleviate the problem of inadequate space or address the county’s significant growth patterns. “In addition to the lack of space, serious health and safety issues have arisen. There are concerns regarding the building’s support systems, such as fire alarms, fire suppression deficiencies, evacuation, egress, accessibility, basement flooding in heavy rain. Inmates are transported through small hallways that the public uses and they utilize the same restrooms as the public so it is not uncommon to have inmates within five feet of their victims and their victim’s families within this courthouse.”
Martinez said his bill authorizes the imposition of a fee when civil cases are filed. He said the reason was to “reduce the burden on the taxpayer.” He said the imposition of the fees would end in 2030 or when Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court rescinds the authorization. “This is not something that continues to raise money in perpetuity.”
Martinez said it has been estimated that the cost of constructing a new courthouse for Hidalgo County increases $20,000 every day. “So, now is the time we really need to push this and get it done for our county. These rising costs dictate that construction starts sooner rather than later and this provides Hidalgo County with the means to fund the construction,” Martinez argued.
There were three witnesses testifying in favor of Martinez’s bill when it was heard by the Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.
County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Rudy Gonzalez testified that Hidalgo County Courthouse was built 61 years ago to accommodate five courts. “We now have 24 courts. I am one of 24 judges that serve the county and there are some health issues and safety issues. The ingress and egress of inmates into the courthouse – they use the same hallways as everybody uses – is a concern.” Another health and safety issue, he said, was flooding.
Sergio Cruz, budget officer for Hidalgo County testified that there is “a great need” for a new courthouse due to the growth in the county. “This bill will go a long way to addressing the needs we have regarding our judicial facilities,” Cruz said.
In his testimony, Bobby Villarreal, director of economic development for Hidalgo County, said: “We really have no useful life left in this courthouse. Renovating it would not accommodate our space needs. So, really we need to build a new facility that would accommodate those needs. Fire suppression systems would bust the pipes we currently have. We feel these fees would go a long way with our partnership with the City of Edinburg to construct it without any tax increase. We are in favor of the bill.”
Sen. Hinojosa’s legislation – Senate Bill 1964 – was heard by the Senate Committee on State Affairs. Laying out the bill, Hinojosa said the legislation was modeled on similar bills filed to raise funds for courthouses in other parts of Texas. “Senate Bill 1964 is a local bill,” Hinojosa said, explaining that it only applies to Hidalgo County. He said a fee of $20 would be imposed when a civil case is filed and a $10 fee would be imposed for real estate property recordings.
Hinojosa said lack of space is a big issue at the Hidalgo County Courthouse. “We only had two state district courts and one county court at law. Now we have 24 district courts, eight county courts at law along with different auxiliary courts that are now being housed in temporary buildings,” Hinojosa said. “The present courthouse has other issues -asbestos, constant maintenance, leaks, and public safety.”
Hinojosa was asked by state Sen. Rodney Ellis how much money would be raised by imposing these fees. Hinojosa replied: “Close to $1.8 million.”
Villarreal and Cruz also testified in support of Hinojosa’s legislation, which has not made it out of the Senate. Martinez’s bill has made it out of committee but has yet to be heard by the full House.