City officials want to explore partnering with the county to build a new courthouse that also includes space for city offices, as County Judge Ron Eckert seeks to tap municipal funds to help replace the blighted building.
Eckert asked the Odessa City Council this week to consider agreeing to a deal that would see them clear land including the Odessa American building at 222. E. Fourth St. so the county could build the new courthouse at the site.
The judge, who is the county’s top administrator, also asked the city officials to consider demolishing the existing courthouse once the new facility is built. In return, the city would get the site of the old courthouse, where plans have called for developing a park. Eckert also asked for help building parking.
Eckert said the city’s participation could shave about $15 million off the original $95 million cost of building the new courthouse. Ector County voters nearly five years ago overwhelmingly rejected a bond proposal for that amount, and Eckert said the county officials had not determined a strategy for shoring up funds for the new facility.
“I’m not running for anything, and if I present this to the voters there are different options where the voters always have a choice,” Eckert said.
But if the county does not go through a bond election, that choice could be mounting a petition drive to overturn a county decision to take on debt.
It was unclear how much of the judge’s $15 million estimate reflected money that would be gained through efficiencies such as land costs and how much would be money the city is asked to spend.
Since buying the OA facility and nearby parking lot for about $1.6 million in 2016, city officials have discussed demolishing the property and either using it to draw private development or trading it to the county in exchange for the site of the existing courthouse. The city also owns many of the surrounding properties.
City Council members on Tuesday said they were open to a partnership and agreed to meet with the Ector County Commissioners Court as soon as this month for a planning session. The city leaders said the new courthouse would also aid the city’s efforts to redevelop downtown.
“If we can make this work and we can budget to where we can do that, I don’t see any flaws in it,” District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales said.
District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner said he wanted voters to sign off on any courthouse project but that a joint facility built by the city and county would be a good use of taxpayer money that the public could support.
“It would frankly tick me off if I knew that that got shoved down my throat as a voter and I didn’t have a choice,” Gardner said. “Now do I think we need to do something? I do.”
District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant said a joint facility could lend to more favorable maintenance and debt servicing costs and other possible advantages. He urged city and county officials to estimate savings that could result once a facility is paid for.
“A municipal building for both the city and the courthouse is much needed,” Bryant said, describing City Hall as aging and increasingly in need of repair. “We cannot overlook what we need. We are going to have to do something.”
Last year, the Odessa City Council approved spending more than $500,000 on City Hall renovations and maintenance, including remodeled City Council chambers, structural fixes and a more than $100,000 emergency roof replacement prompted by leaks.
“This is an excellent idea, and it shows progression in the city,” District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton told Eckert on Tuesday about a possible shared facility. “Downtown needs a huge facelift, and as you said earlier, people think of the courthouse when they think of downtown.”
District 3 Barbara Graff said city officials should also help convince the public to support building a new courthouse. County officials would be limited in their ability to campaign for a bond election if they seek one.
“We need to publicly stand up and let the world know what’s going on, because you all I don’t think can really do that to the extent that someone outside could,” Graff said. “That’s a huge problem.”