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20120224_COUNTY_PCT3_FORUM_EPG_0019MISSION — At the first community forum where Hidalgo County’s options for remodeling or constructing a new courthouse were unveiled, several residents and Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe M. Flores said it would be too expensive to build a new courthouse in a struggling economy.

“How are we going to pay for a new courthouse right now,” Flores asked during the hour-long forum where residents were given a historical background of the courthouse as well an update on a 28-member team’s work on the courthouse master plan.

The county’s aging building may be in need of renovations, but Flores insisted that a new building was out of the question.

“Right now we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said of the economy, explaining that business owners are forfeiting their establishments daily. “We can’t afford it right now. Everyone would love it, but we can’t afford it.”

Brian Godinez, a consultant hired by the county to assist ERO Architects in developing a master plan that will be ultimately approved by Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court, said the plans created by the group don’t need to be acted upon once the court makes an approval.

If the county is unable to pay for any construction now, the plans will be available when funds are identified.

“When the commissioners’ court decides to pull the trigger, we’re ready to go,” said Eli Ochoa, with ERO Architects.

While at least one resident said he was in favor of the county building a new courthouse, others agreed with Flores.

“Hidalgo County doesn’t have the money,” said Fern McClaugherty, an Edinburg resident who was appointed to the courthouse committee.

The existing courthouse, located at 100 N. Closner Blvd., is approximately 4.74 acres. The property consists of the main building with two additions, one annex structure, sally port, landscaped areas and parking lots.

The courthouse was originally constructed in 1954 and later remodeled with additions added in 1968 and 1978. The main courthouse building has approximately 93,088 square feet of floor area. The annex is a single-story building with about 8,000 square feet.

The county needs to create nearly 361,000 square feet of space to accommodate the county’s growth and needs. Currently, the county has 101,000 square feet of space, which is scattered in different buildings.

To address current and future growth, architects have proposed the construction of an eight-story building in the draft could cost approximately $53 million.

The current courthouse, which cannot be torn down due to Texas Historical Commission mandates, could cost another $10 million to bring up to code, officials said. A $4 million grant will help the count in its renovation process.

For project funding, the county is considering adopting a tax increment financing zone as one method of funding. With the City of Edinburg, the county hopes to develop a zone several blocks around the courthouse square to help pay off the debt of the construction.

Still, those at the meeting found it impossible for the county taxpayers to not have to carry the burden of the courthouse debt.

“People will be OK with (a property tax increase) for new schools,” said resident Virginia Townsend, who is also on the committee. “But when you come to a courthouse, they’ll say you have to be more practical than that. That’s what’s the matter with us.”

Townsend, a member of the Objective Watchers of the Legal System, has said throughout the process that a new courthouse is unnecessary. She and McClaugherty, another member of the OWLS, said they were frustrated by the county’s inability to make use of all the space it has available for offices and courts.

Likewise, Flores said other nearby counties have outgrown their courthouses yet still conduct business.

“Starr County’s courthouse esta chiquita and no one is talking about building a new one,” he said of the county’s small court space.

Godinez said all the funding options hadn’t been discussed or explored. One of those alternatives could be private investment, an idea explored in Travis County.

Ochoa said while the county has outgrown its courthouse and there are several health and safety deficiencies identified in the building, the county is under no mandate to fix those issues if there’s no funding available based on grandfather clauses for older buildings.

Despite being against spending too much money on new construction, residents agreed that bringing the building up to code should be done.

“You’ve got to start from somewhere,” Flores said.

Next month, consultants will hold a joint meeting with county commissioners and the City of Edinburg to present what the committee has proposed. At that time, county and city leaders will be able to offer their suggestions, too.

The comments made at forums, either out loud at the meetings or in writing, will be included in the final draft that commissioners will vote on at the end of March.

“Right now’s not the time to even be talking about it,” Flores said at the end of the meeting, “but they still did it.”

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