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New courthouse recommendation expected - Odessa American: Ector County

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New courthouse recommendation expected

Simmons: Bond would be tough sell

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Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 3:47 pm

After months of research by an appointed committee, a group of Ector County residents is expected to recommend that Ector County build a new courthouse.

The Courthouse Evaluation Committee is made up of a number of community members, including business owners and attorneys, tasked by the county judge with deciding the next step for Ector County’s courthouse.

Commissioner Greg Simmons said County Judge Susan Redford told him what to expect from the meeting.

“From what I’ve heard is they are going to make the recommendation that we ought to pursue another courthouse,” Simmons said Thursday.

The committee will meet with commissioners at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 6 to present its findings and possibly make a recommendation. Any recommendation would require a vote for a plan to take effect.

Redford said she doesn’t know what the committee will recommend, but conceded that she has a good idea of what they will do based on what she has heard and conversations she’s had with its members.

Redford said in 2008, when a previous courthouse committee was formed, a new courthouse would have cost in the neighborhood of $55 million for a bare-bones building with little ability to expand.

Simmons said now, with the possible cost of $60 million to $70 million and a bond the most likely way to pay for it, it will be a tougher sell to the community.

“At some point people just get to the point of, ‘Hey, we’ve got enough debt in our community,’” Simmons said.

Depending on what the courthouse committee recommends, Redford said the price tag could be even higher than that.

With the recent $129.75 million ECISD bond passing, Simmons said taxpayers probably would be less likely to vote for a bond to fund a new courthouse.

However, he said it could be viewed as a potential focal point for the community, with a good location and events at the courthouse to have a park-like environment.

Simmons said the only way they can do this is if the taxpayers are supportive of a new courthouse, and he would be against it if taxpayers did not support the measure.

Redford said the agenda item allows the commissioners to vote on a plan of action if necessary, no matter what is recommended.

Four courthouse committee members contacted by the OA declined to comment or did not return messages.

Despite Simmon’s prediction that it would be a tough sell, some want a new courthouse.

As a sheriff’s deputy closed the door to Denn Whalen’s office while inmates walked by, the seven-year district court judge said security is a big issue for him at the county courthouse.

“Because of how the courthouse is built out, there’s not a lot you can do about it,” Whalen said.

Redford said escorting inmates in public areas and near judges’ offices was not ideal.

“Our courthouse does not meet security standards for courthouses in any way,” Redford said. “It’s not a safe environment.”

Redford created the 2013 committee amid a number of costly repairs that have been recommended for the courthouse.

With the proposed 2014 budget, Redford said she held off on including repairs to the 50-year-old courthouse while she awaits a recommendation from the courthouse committee.

Redford said the committee could opt to recommend a new courthouse, renovate the current courthouse, add a building outside of the courthouse, or do nothing.

“I think something needs to be done,” Redford said. “I do see that this building is a financial liability for the county.”

In addition to the security side of the courthouse, Redford also said the plumbing, electricity, elevators, and air conditioning are in need of repair.

Space is another issue at the courthouse, with the district clerk’s office moving its criminal division recently for more file space.

A new courthouse could also mean a fifth felony court, something county and district officials have said could alleviate much of the backlog of accused felons.

Whalen said his court previously had between 250 and 350 new criminal cases per year, while currently it’s between 450 and 550 per year.

“It’s slowed things down significantly just because of the influx of cases that need to be disposed of,” Whalen said.

Not everyone thinks a new courthouse needs to be built in Ector County, however.

Gerald Lopez, a local attorney, said the county probably won’t get a fifth district court any time soon and the current building is still functional.

“I just don’t see that there’s any excessive overcrowding or anything like that,” Lopez said.

Instead of a new courthouse, Lopez offered that certain offices such as the district and county attorneys could move into other buildings near the courthouse and some records and files could be moved off-site as well.

The courthouse – which has four felony courts, three misdemeanor courts, a juvenile court, the district attorney and clerk, the county attorney and clerk, probation department and other departments – was dedicated April 12, 1964, by then-Gov. John Connally.

It is the fourth courthouse in Ector County, preceded by a former medical facility in 1891, a red-stone courthouse in 1904, and a three-story cement building at the current location in 1938.

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