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Guest Editorial: Courthouse restoration: Responses submitted to seven questions
Sep 29, 2011 | 1185 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Karnes Countywide submitted a list of seven questions to Karnes County citizens who have taken a public stance on the issue of courthouse restoration. Karnes County Historical Commission Chairman Truett Lee Hunt sent a response to the seven questions that were asked and his responses on behalf of the Karnes County Historical Commission were published in the Aug. 17 issue of The Karnes Countywide. Members of the Karnes County Taxpayers Association were also given an opportunity to respond at that time but declined to submit responses to the questions. This week this group has offered responses to the seven questions:

1) What is the proposal for the future of the courthouse in Karnes County?

The Karnes County Commissioners Court has voted to have a bond election to be held November 8, 2011: Proposition 1 — $4 million for courthouse restoration and Proposition 2 ­— $3 million for county roads. The bond election will solidify two important issues we have supported:

1. It will allow the citizens of Karnes County to vote on capital improvement projects and to determine whether or not to incur additional debt. This is a major change from the policy of the previous Commissioners Court.

2. It gives the decision making authority to the citizens of Karnes County to vote on whether or not they (the citizens and taxpayers) want the current courthouse restored under the Texas Historical Commission rules and requirements.

Other options have not been discussed in a public forum nor have the taxpayers of Karnes County been given an opportunity to make a choice.

Option A. Repair and renovate the existing courthouse for use.

Option B. Build a new courthouse or a new replica courthouse. New construction is far more cost effective (cheaper) than restoration.

This will give the taxpayers an opportunity to consider all options. It will allow future oil and gas tax revenues to accumulate so we would have the funds to pay for the courthouse of the taxpayers’ choice. Without the THC, Karnes County taxpayers could seek to regain control of our courthouse. Local contractors and tradesmen would be able to participate in the renovation and future maintenance and it allows the taxpayers to plan and make fiscally responsible decisions as the taxpayers of Karnes County.

2) How much will it cost and what is the source of the estimate?

If the Karnes County taxpayers vote “yes” the courthouse will be “restored” with the Texas Historical Commission (THC) dictating “who” will do the work; “what” work will be done; and “how much” will be spent. If the taxpayers of Karnes County vote “yes” to Proposition 1, they will be obligating themselves to a minimum of $8.3 million, (Proposition 1 = $4 million plus $5.3 million = $9.3 million) at the minimum, plus all cost overruns. The $8.3 million is the architect’s estimate, not an estimate or bid provided by a THC “approved’ restoration contractor.

The Karnes County Historical Society has promoted the restoration project as though the THC has guaranteed we will receive a grant of $5.3 million from the Texas Historical Commission (THC). The THC, when asked on numerous occasions, has refused to make a commitment to Karnes County for the $5.3 million grant.

1. The Texas Historical Commission (THC) has made the removal of the wings and the loss of over 4,000 square feet a major issue.

2. We, the citizens, are unable to get a credible or responsible estimate from a restoration contractor for total restoration or renovation of the Karnes County Courthouse. Remember, the only cost estimate available is from the architect, Fisher and Heck, and that estimate is based on plans which the architect admitted in Commissioners Court are only 90% complete. It is clearly stated on the plans that the concrete floor must be removed and before it can be determined what steps are necessary to stabilize the foundation, therefore no estimate for the foundation or a French drain are included in the $8.3 million restoration estimate by the architects.

3. Only approved contractors and architects (from outside of Karnes County) will benefit from this restoration. A perfect example of this is the Karnes County Courthouse Annex Building. The architect is from San Antonio (he was paid over $500,000) and the contractor is from Victoria, and has billed the county almost $5 million.

4. At this time, there is no factual cost basis for the restoration of the courthouse.

There is an estimate from Fisher and Heck Architects in the amount of $8.3 million. Keep in mind that the Fisher and Heck firm is not an approved restoration contractor. The current Commissioners Court is attempting to obtain a bid/estimate from approved historical restoration contractors.

The THC and the Karnes County Historical Society continue to use the estimate from Fisher and Heck Architects which was given in 2007. It is logical to assume that the price has increased substantially in four years considering the state of the economy.

There is no consideration being given by the THC or the Karnes County Historical Society regarding cost overruns. Cost overruns will be paid for, in their entirety, by the taxpayers of Karnes County. A number of neighboring counties have been contacted about their THC restorations. In every case, they have experienced cost overruns ranging from approximately 10% to 40%. The THC is not concerned with cost overruns. Once the project starts, the costs of all change orders or overruns will be paid, in their entirety, by the taxpayers of Karnes County.

3) What happens to the old courthouse in this plan?

The costs of maintenance of a restored courthouse will increase significantly over what has been spent in the past. Again, on a restored courthouse, THC would determine everything from whether or not a picture could be hung to who would be allowed to hang and how much we had to pay their “approved” contractor.

The previous Commissioners Court signed over an easement to the THC. This effectively transferred control of our courthouse, the jail and the property on which they sit to the THC. Since they, the THC, will own the Karnes County Courthouse, the THC must approve any repairs or maintenance, and that all repairs and maintenance can only be done by contractors approved by the THC.

The previous Commissioners Court gave control of our courthouse to the THC. Once restoration starts, we, Karnes County, will be giving THC a “signed blank check”. Whatever the costs will be, and they are unknown, we the taxpayers will pay the bill. The bottom line is we must have a reliable professional bid from an approved restoration contractor before we will know what the total costs of complete restoration will be.

We are not aware of how many people will occupy the courthouse after restoration. We think it would be reasonable to assume that 5-8 people will occupy the restored courthouse. Regardless of who or how many occupy the courthouse after restoration, it will lose most of its functionality. It is not hard to imagine a cost of $800-$1,000 or more per square foot to restore the courthouse. That’s a lot of money to pay for what will essentially become a museum. We have higher priorities that affect all of the citizens of Karnes County. Specifically, we need a new jail, more deputies, and improvement of the county roads. The county roads have not been properly maintained for years and almost half of the population of Karnes County lives in the country. These are real priorities right now.

4) What makes your plan the best path for Karnes County citizens?

We are of the opinion that Karnes County should be fiscally conservative and responsible to the taxpayer. We should spend money we know we have and not obligate us to spend money we don’t have but might receive. We do not need to follow the path of the Texas Legislature or the Congress and Senate of the United States. We as citizens are expected to live within our means. It’s not unreasonable to expect the same from our government, at the county, state or national level. Regarding the bond election, there are several issues that we believe should be considered by the voters and taxpayers of Karnes County:

1. By voting against Proposition 1, the taxpayers of Karnes County will take a giant step toward regaining control of the courthouse, the jail, and the property they occupy. The taxpayers will effectively determine what improvements will be made. If the Commissioners Court implements Phase 1, taking off the wings (1924 addition) of the courthouse, the THC will then control our courthouse, jail and property forever. Only THC “approved” contractors and vendors would be allowed to participate in the restoration, maintenance and repairs of the restored facility.

2. There are more “urgent” priorities for Karnes County.

•Build a jail.

•Provide more law enforcement personnel and equipment.

•Improve and upgrade the county roads.

5) What do you see as problematic in the other sides’ proposal?

By entering into a contract with the THC to restore the courthouse, the following in fact will happen:

1. Karnes County will transfer total control of the courthouse, the jail, and the property to the Texas Historical Commission.

2. We take the “grant” from THC, the maximum grant would be approximately $5.3 million, and at the completion, whatever it costs, Karnes County will have a much smaller courthouse, with permanent “strings” attached.

3. The cost of restoration of the courthouse is unknown. We have no bids or estimates from an approved restoration contractor.

4. Karnes County has no commitment from THC that we will receive a future grant, in any amount.

5. Karnes County will in effect give to the THC a “blank, signed check” for the restoration of the courthouse since we are solely responsible for payment.

6. Karnes County will lose over 4,000 square feet of existing courthouse space.

6. Do you think there are some misconceptions about your plan out there and what are they?

The Karnes County Historical Society, the THC and the editor of the Countywide have repeatedly alleged that the Karnes County Taxpayer Association has no plan and we want to tear down the courthouse. Both allegations are incorrect.

By removing the wings of the courthouse, we lose over 4,000 square feet of needed office space. We support plans to repair, maintain and make the courthouse useable, with the 4,000 square feet wings attached. Another option is to build a new courthouse. We are in favor of regaining control of our courthouse, the old jail and the grounds they are built upon.

We are for fiscal responsibility and spending money we know we have and not what we might have.

7) How would your plan be financed and completed?

The Karnes County Taxpayers Association, as previously stated, has many priorities before we restore the courthouse. We support the renovation of the courthouse after necessities that are more urgent are addressed. We believe that future tax revenues, from the oil and gas boom we are experiencing, can pay for the renovation/ restoration of the current courthouse or build a new courthouse. We are of the opinion that there is no “free” money. The THC, the state of Texas and the U.S. government do not grant “free” money to anyone. There will always be strings attached, but we need to read the fine print. We are experiencing irresponsible fiscal decisions made by the previous Commissioners Court. We want to be financially solvent, and fiscally responsible as taxpayers of Karnes County.

Payment for repair of the courthouse or building a new courthouse could be accomplished with oil and gas tax revenues or with bonds voted on at a future date. This would allow citizens to make an informed and educated vote.

The Karnes County Taxpayers Association strongly encourages every voter to go to the polls and make an educated, responsible vote — not an emotional vote — on the bond issues.
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