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County discusses courthouse woes

Hidalgo-County-SealIn light of recent evacuations at the Hidalgo County Courthouse, emergency procedures were critiqued at the Tuesday meeting of Commissioners Court.

On Friday, Nov. 22, the courthouse was closed for almost two hours when there was a major power outage in the area leaving the courthouse and surrounding area in darkness. Employees who work in locations without light and air conditioning were told to leave and come back later when it was determined the problem would not be fixed quickly.

The following Monday the heat at the courthouse was turned on after a long period of time. Dust on coils caused a burning smell and smoke was reported coming from vents on the second floor. Again employees were told to vacate the building by the sheriff’s department, which is in charge of evacuations. They returned two and a half hours later after the fire department determined there was no fire. The smoke and burning smell was coming from the dust burning off the dirty coils.

In both cases employees waited outside until they were told the problem could not be fixed until a certain time and they should leave or leave and come back later.

Valde Guerra said a policy needed to be determined as to when the courthouse should be vacated in the future. Who had the authority to determine whether the courthouse should have been evacuated?

The other problem is that if employees are not at work, they cannot be paid and the time out would be taken from vacation time. If they did not have any, it would be deducted from their checks.

Under open forum, Fern McClaugherty, OWL (Objective Watchers of the Legal System) said it was a lack of maintenance that caused the evacuation. If maintenance crews regularly cleaned the coils or if the county contracted with someone to maintain the AC/heating systems, there would have been no shutdown.

County Judge Ramon Garcia responded there was smoke coming out of the vents. At that point, human life took priority over everything else.

County Fire Marshall Juan Martinez was in the meeting and said with smoke coming through the vents, he would have gone one step further and pulled the fire alarm instead of just going from door to door and telling people to evacuate as the sheriff’s department did.

“Fire spreads very quickly and the situation could have been very dangerous,” Martinez said.

OWL Virginia Townsend told the commissioners the discussion was going to make people think the courthouse was in bad shape. The problem was the coil had never been used and was not being properly maintained.

“We cannot afford a new courthouse at this time,” Townsend told commissioners. “We need to make do with the courthouse we have instead of making a 30-year debt mistake that will increase our taxes.”

Annette Muniz, who is deputy chief for the County Clerk’s Office, told commissioners a new courthouse was desperately needed. She has worked there 13 years and sees many problems.

“It’s easy for those who do not work there to say we do not need a new courthouse because they do not deal with the problems we face,” Muniz told the court.

Muniz said there have been many water line breaks including the sewer pipe that broke in the floor above her office. When maintenance men were called to see what the problem was, they removed a ceiling panel and sewage spilled out of the broken pipe onto their $25,000 server. Fortunately, they were able to clean the mess before it got into the server, but it could have been a disaster. The horrid smell remained for a time and employees were forced to smell it as they worked.

Garcia said there are two different issues with the two closures. The first was an electrical problem that affected the area, not just the courthouse. Many employees work in offices that do not have windows, so they were sitting in the dark with no air circulation.

In the second case there was a potential fire threat, which could have resulted in loss of life. The building has no sprinkler system, making the situation even more dangerous.

In both cases, the employees did not leave the courthouse grounds until they were told to do so after evacuation.

Following the meeting, Muniz said the building was 59 years old and was not built to handle the type of modern technology it now has to have. When electricians removed panels in their office to address problems, there were wires upon wires and more wires in the space allotted. It is difficult to know what wire goes to what function. As more technology is needed, more wires are added, resulting in patchwork repairs.

Muniz said the break in the sewer line between the first and second floor was not the only one. Waterlines also have broken in the courthouse. She said they have a lot of trouble with the elevators not working all the time.

According to Muniz, the building also is filled with asbestos. She based that statement upon a report done several years ago assessing the condition and needs of the courthouse.

When asked how many people work in the courthouse, Muniz was not sure. There are 80 employees in the County Clerk’s Office and another 80 employees in the District Clerk’s Office. There are also a number of employees assigned to the courtrooms. On a day when court is in session, prisoners and people coming to hearings swell the numbers of people inside the courthouse. There could easily be 400 to 500 people or more trying to get out in case of a fire.

She questioned the sheriff’s department’s method of handling the situation by coming to the door of offices and telling people to evacuate. There is no central speaker system to tell people to evacuate or where the nearest exit is located, so not all people know where the stairs are located. The main entrance and exit is through the front doors, as the back doors are now fenced in for security purposes.

In other action, commissioners approved $728,425 from sale of assets to Hidalgo Drainage District No. 1 for Shary Road improvements from FM 1924 (Mile 3 Road) to SH 107 in Precinct No. 3.

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