EDINBURG, RGV – Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia plans to hold a series of town hall meetings across the county in the new year to educate residents about the need for a new courthouse.

Garcia did something similar a few years aback on the need for an improved drainage system. He said the meetings produced a more informed citizenry.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia

“We need to make the community aware of the fact that we do need a new courthouse,” Garcia told the Rio Grande Guardian. “I think residents will learn a lot from the town hall meetings.”

Garcia acknowledged that many residents do not need to visit the current county courthouse that often. So, they may not be aware of the need for a new one.

“People do not necessarily go to that building on a regular basis. It is only when you are summonsed or when you are trying to transact some business that it requires a trip to the courthouse. But, our residents need to understand that the current courthouse is not adequate and that if we move on it we are going to be able to build a new building and an adequate building and be able to do it without having to increase the tax rate, which I think is a big deal.”

Asked if contracts with a construction company have been signed, Garcia said. “We have not signed anything with the contractors. We have signed contracts with engineers, construction managers, program managers, architects. We need one more contract, that would be with the contractor.”

After serving three terms as county judge, Garcia, a Democrat, announced recently that he will not run for re-election. There are three candidates on the ballot to replace him, Republican Jane Cross, and Democrats Eloy Pulido and Richard Cortez.

Pulido recently told the Rio Grande Guardian that he would like to put the brakes on the county courthouse project. He said the current courthouse should remain as an administration center for Hidalgo County and a new “justice center” should be built somewhere on the expressway. This way, he said, residents could get to court more easily.

Asked to respond to such a plan, Garcia said: “I don’t think that gentleman knows what he is talking about. First of all, he is not aware but should be aware and make himself aware of the title issues that exist with that property. Once you move the courthouse, or the justice center, as he calls it, to a different location the county will lose title to that courthouse square, and all the improvements that are on it. It automatically reverts back to the Looney family. If it is not the county courthouse, as the county seat on that courthouse square, you lose title. You could move it to another part of Edinburg, you would still lose title.”

Hidalgo County Commissioner Joseph Palacios, whose precinct includes the county courthouse, spoke about the need for a new courthouse in a livestream interview with the Rio Grande Guardian on Facebook.

Palacios said it is not just the courthouse that needs modernizing but also downtown Edinburg. He pointed out that downtown Edinburg also includes Edinburg City Hill and Edinburg CISD’s administrative offices.

“The downtown area used to be a basin for an orange grove. In 2015, we had water going all the way to the university,” he said, noting the heavy flooding of a few years back.

Palacios said that as vice chairman of the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization he was able to secure $20 million for offsite infrastructure.

“There is a need (for a new courthouse),” Palacios told the Rio Grande Guardian. “There is not enough capacity,” he said, pointing out that the current facility has safety issues.

“To the capacity of what is being envisioned, that is what we are working on today. Every day we are working on that,” Palacios said. As to the aesthetics or the size of the new facility, that can still be determined. “My commitment is the infrastructure, ensuring we get the dollars for offsite infrastructure,” he said.

In September, Hidalgo County Commissioners Court made the case for a new county courthouse. The pitch came in the form of an article, which was included in a print and digital newsletter. The article included comments from then-Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia.

Here is the article in full:

County moves forward on new courthouse

This is the best time ever to finance a new courthouse.

The County is the best possible shape ever in the 165-years since it was established!

“We are in the best financial health to undertake this much-needed endeavor,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios. “We have a statutory requirement to deliver the highest level of judicial services to our constituents.”

The County can maintain the same level of debt payments, incur new debt for the courthouse, and the County will also benefit by taking advantage of the lowest interest rates in recent memory. On July 25, Commissioners Court hired Jacobs Project Management Company as project manager and on August 15 hired HDR as the architectural firm for the courthouse project.

The strategy involved using financial restructuring, paying off debt, low interest rates, increased revenues from growth, the city of Edinburg’s financial commitment ($30 million), courthouse user filing fees ($1.5 million annually), and TX-DOT and MPO offsite infrastructure funding ($20 million).

The County’s project management and design firms will work together to contain construction costs. The City of Edinburg has committed $30 million over 30 years for construction costs and debt service.

“The new courthouse square will create a huge economic impact to the downtown area,” said Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia.

Hidalgo County has been one of the fastest growing regions for the past five years. In fact, Edinburg-McAllen-Mission area became Texas’ 5th largest metro area in 2015 with close to one million residents.

In 1954, the five-courtroom courthouse was sufficient to serve a small rural population of 168,000 with a life expectancy of 50 years. Two additional increased the main courthouse and annex to its current 101,088 square feet.

Today, the courthouse is functionally obsolete and structurally deficient. Courts are split, with 17 located in the courthouse proper, five in the modular buildings, and two District Courts located outside the complex in rental locations.

The Texas Legislature has mandated that the County add one more district court by 2019.

The current courthouse is inadequate for modern fourth operations, over-crowded, unsafe and the liability is indisputable.

On average, ten times per day, defendants in custody share hallways, restrooms, and elevators with victims, witnesses, jurors, judges, and staff.

The last 60-plus years has taken its toll on the courthouse, causing rising maintenance costs.

Some issues include: inadequate fire alarms and suppression, asbestos, mold, lead-based paint, deteriorating ceilings and rusty pipes. Faulty wiring causes blackouts and machine breakdowns cause gas leaks and smoke forcing evacuation of the courthouse.

This environment does not meet the County’s mandate to provide a high level of judicial services for its constituents.

A new courthouse will provide accessibility and security while allowing the judicial process to move forward with increased efficiency and effectiveness.

The new 340,000 square foot courthouse will be designed to grow and serve the County for generations to come.