The price of justice: $8.8 million

The price of justice: $8.8 million

By Kathi Bliss

Editor/POST-REGISTER

 

Caldwell County has a plan for the renovation of the building formerly known as WalMart.

They simply have no idea how to pay for it.

Representatives from Steinbomer, Bramwell and Vrazel Architects returned to the Caldwell County Commissioners Court for what they hoped would be the last time on the initial planning for the renovation of the new Caldwell County Justice Center. Those plans have been volleyed back and forth for several months as the department heads, architects and Commissioners attempt to determine what is going to be best for Caldwell County.

Most recently, security concerns and having offices split across hallways took the forefront of the discussion. In light of the recent murders of the Kaufman County District Attorney and his wife, as well as an assistant district attorney from his office, court staff are understandably concerned about security in the new facility.

To address those concerns, additional secured hallway access has been added, as well as some secured parking.

Upon its completion, the facility will house the District Courts and the County Court at Law, the District Attorney’s Office, District Clerk’s Office, the County Clerk’s Office, the Adult Probation Office, and a vehicle maintenance bay.

The total space expected to be remodeled, when all is said and done, is upwards of 50,000 square feet. The heads of each department, along with the judges who will be housed in the new facility, expressed their satisfactionwith the new plan, and all said they believe it will suit the needs of a growing county.

The problem, of course, is how to pay for it.

According to initial figures presented by Braun and Butler, the construction manager at risk on the project, the renovation could cost $6.6 million. That figure, they cautioned, is very preliminary, because additional information still has to be gathered from the architects, designers and contractors, the cost could change.

However, because of the rate at which the Austin construction industry is beginning to rebound they warned that the County should move forward, because prices will only go up in the future.

County Administrator Ron Heggemeier said he plans to present options for financing the project at the next meeting of the Commissioners Court. The project, once it begins, is expected to take around 11 months to complete.

Betty Voigt with the Capital Area Council on Governments (CAPCOG) encouraged the Commissioners to enter a resolution in support of legislation currently before the Texas House that would designate CAPCOG as an emergency communications district, allowing the COG to serve the ten-county region with comprehensive 9-1-1 services.

Currently, Voigt said, the State of Texas collects a 50 cent 9-1-1 fee from each telephone customer in the state. Although that money was supposed to be reinvested into emergency communications, much of the funds are withheld by the State to fund other projects, including offsetting deficits in the State’s general fund.

If the communications district was established, she said, the state would be required to turn over 100 percent of those funds, collected within the district.

Some opponents of the measure say the legislation will strip power from local governments and allow the CAPCOG to become a taxing entity. However, the Commissioners suggested the benefits outweigh those risks, and, according to Commissioner Joe Roland, “I can’t see this as anything but a benefit for our citizens.”

Additionally, because he sits on the CAPCOG Executive Committee, some members of the gallery asked Judge Tom Bonn to recuse himself from the vote. However, according to the County’s legal representative Mack Harrison, that recusal was not necessary.

The ongoing construction project at the Caldwell County Courthouse might throw a wrench in plans for the upcoming Cinco de Mayo festival on the Caldwell County Courthouse Square.

Representatives from the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce came forward on Monday morning to ask the Court if fencing and equipment could be moved, in an effort to create enough space on Market Street for the event to take place.

After some discussion between the Commissioners, the Hispanic Chamber and representatives from Alpha, construction, it became clear that the request was premature, because it was unclear which fences might need to be moved, and where they could be moved to.

According to Alpha’s Mary Salisbury, the request the company originally received to move the fencing and equipment would have caused a delay in the job, and was not feasible because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements. However, the plan presented to the court by George Sanchez on behalf of the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was different, she said, than the request Alpha had received.

Given the changes, Salisbury said it was possible, and in fact likely, that the Courthouse renovation project could be adjusted to accommodate the festival.

Representatives from all stakeholding organizations are expected to meet this week to strike a compromise, and the issue will come back before the Court for approval next week.

In other business, the Court opted to renew Caldwell County’s participation in an interlocal agreement with Lubbock County.

The agreement, effectively establishes an “insurancepolicy for poor counties,” allows for alternatives for court-appointed counsel for defendants in capital murder cases. In general, according to 421st Judicial District Judge Todd Blomerth, the cost of litigating a capital case can exceed $500,000, which could be a disaster for small and poor counties’ budgets.

The agreement establishes Caldwell County’s ability to participate in the Regional Public Defender in Capital Cases program, and will cost the county around $7,500. The “PD” will then provide a public defender for defendants who cannot afford their own attorney for a capital murder case, should it become necessary, at little to no additional charge. Competent public defenders are important, and participation in the pool becomes a factor, according to District Attorney Trey Hicks, because it allows the county to preserve a defendant’s right to court-appointed counsel, but also allows prosecutors to consider capital murder trials without worrying whether the cost of prosecuting them will bankrupt the county.

Caldwell County has had only a handful of capital murder charges throughout history.

The Court entered a proclamation declaring April “Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.” They also declared April “Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.” Members of the Court, including Judge Tom Bonn and Commissioner Neto Madrigal expressed regret that society is such that the proclamations are necessary, but said that, because we do live in a world where assaults and abuse exist, they will continue to advocate for awareness, prevention and change.

Caldwell County Historical Commission chair Doug Shomette made a presentation to the Court about the current state of the Commission’s budget. He also gave an updated on the state of the renovation and repairs on the Caldwell County Jail Museum.

On the advice of Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Parker, the Commissioners opted to leave the outdoor burning ban off.

They appointed a number of people to the Caldwell County Historical Commission.

The Caldwell County Commissioners meet on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the training and conference room at the LW Scott Annex (1403 Blackjack St.). The meetings are open to the public, and interested stakeholders are encouraged to attend.

kathilbliss@post-register.com

 

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