EDINBURG, RGV – Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia says construction of the new Hidalgo County Courthouse could begin in about a year and a half, provided legislation that includes a new funding stream for the project is approved by the Legislature.

Senate Bill 1964, authored by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa and sponsored by state Rep. Armando Martinez, imposes a $40 fee for each civil case filed in Hidalgo County. It also imposes a $10 fee for real property records filed in Hidalgo County. The funds raised will go towards the construction of a new county courthouse.

Ramon Garcia
Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia

“We will probably be able to raise – based on historical filings – somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million per year (from the imposition of these new fees,” Garcia told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Asked if this will be sufficient to fund the courthouse project, Garcia said: “We have probably got an annual payment of about $10 million. We intend to structure the monies that are available in such a way that we will be able to meet those payments without having to go and increase anybody’s tax rate. Remember, the City of Edinburg is going to help out with 20 percent of the cost.”

Garcia said there are a number of cost-cutting measures currently underway which will allow Hidalgo County to restructure its debt burden.

“We have cut down the monies we spend on indigent healthcare. We have saved about $2 million a year from where we used to be. Also, we are working with our district attorney to cut down on the cost of housing inmates out of county. Last year we spent $3.8 million. He (DA Ricardo Rodriguez) believes we ought to be able to get anywhere between $1.5 and $2 million in savings on an annual basis. We are going to be doing things like this in order to get the resources that we need to make that (courthouse) payment.”

State Rep. Armando Martinez
State Rep. Armando Martinez

Asked how much the new courthouse would cost, Garcia said: “At one point it got up to $200 million to $210 million. We had all the plans looked at by another architectural firm. We peer reviewed the project and we have been able to bring it down to about $148 million. I expect it come down more. We are still looking at it. I want to see if we can get it down to about $130 million to $135 million.”

Bobby Villarreal, economic development director for Hidalgo County said: “We are restructuring old debt and refinancing it. That will lower our overall debt payments annually so our financial adviser is fitting all that in so we that the new courthouse does not have impact on our tax rate.”

Villarreal pointed to all-time low interest rates as a good reason to construct the courthouse now. “The window of opportunity is now and kicking it down the road will only make it far more costly.” Villarreal also pointed so safety consideration. “At present, inmates going down the same hallways as judges and the general public. It is a matter of safety. Also, it is an old facility. Every dollar we spend on it does not go to anything.”

Asked how long before construction of the new courthouse gets underway – provided, of course, SB 1964 passes – Garcia said: “We are probably about a year away by the time we start putting it out for bids. The need is clearly there.”

Villarreal elaborated on this. “In about one year we should be done with the design phases and then we can start putting out bids for the construction and get construction documents. Construction would not start until after those processes are complete. So, a year plus. However long it takes us to bid and procure a construction manager/company, depending on which route we go.”

Asked if there would definitely be no new taxes to pay for the courthouse, Judge Garcia said: “No tax increases.”

Rep. Martinez’s Capitol office offered these “talking points” to make the case for a new courthouse for Hidalgo County:

1.    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 Hidalgo County Courthouse was constructed in 1954 to accommodate five courts serving a small rural community with a population of 168,000.

2.    Today, there are 24 courts now serving a population of nearly 900,000. Hidalgo County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, and the Census estimates Hidalgo as the 8th most populous county in the state. This population increase has pressed the county to make accommodations to the courthouse, but renovations can no longer alleviate the problem of inadequate space or address the County’s significant growth patterns.

3.    In addition to the lack of space, serious health and safety issues have risen. There are concerns regarding the building support system, such as fire alarm and fire-suppression deficiencies, evacuation egress accessibility, and basement flooding in heavy rain. Inmates are transported through the same hallways that the public uses, and they utilize the same restrooms as the public.

3 a.    It is not uncommon to have inmates within five feet of their victims and their victims’ families.

4.    The Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court is committed to completing construction without tax increases or bond issuances. The initial schematic designs predicted the cost of the courthouse at upwards of $200,000,000 dollars, but recommendations from a third party architect lowered the cost by nearly $50,000,000 dollars.
5.    SB 1964 authorizes certain civil court and real record filing fees to reduce the burden on the taxpayer and shift some of the responsibility to those who use the courthouse. This bill is modeled after similar legislation passed for Travis County and others. The fees to be collected only apply to district courts, statutory probate courts, and county courts at law in Hidalgo County. In general, the fees are:
a.    Not more than $40 for each civil case filed;
b.    Not more than $10 for each real property records filed in the courts;
c.    The County is required to spend one dollar for each dollar spent from the funds from the fee; and
d.    The authority to assess the fee ends either when the Commissioner’s court rescinds the fee or in 2030.

6.    It has been estimated that the cost of construction increases $20,000 every day. These rising costs dictate that construction begins sooner rather than later. SB 1964 provides Hidalgo County with the means to fund construction of their new courthouse without a tax increase.