City and county officials will form a committee to study ways to cooperate on building a new courthouse and estimate costs of downtown development to make way for such a project, which could be a shared facility.
Members of the Odessa City Council and the Ector County Commissioners’ Court agreed in principle during a Tuesday planning session that replacing the blighted courthouse could happen sooner if both entities share some of the burden. Questions remain on what roles the city and county would take on, what a new facility should include and at what cost.
But the officials described replacing the courthouse as critical because of longstanding structural problems.
“There is still an open question, which I acknowledge: … the cost to the taxpayer,” Ector County Judge Ron Eckert said. “The city may be paying for some of this as well. But again we are past the irritation. We are to the emergency stage.”
Nearly five years ago, voters overwhelmingly rejected a $95 million bond proposal for a new courthouse.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons said the failure of that bond should send a clear signal that the elected officials should find a way to cut down the cost.
Eckert said the city’s help could shave about $15 million off the original $95 million cost of building the new courthouse. It’s still unclear how much of that reflects money the city is asked to spend.
Eckert said he favors the county taking on debt as the fastest way to replace the courthouse, like commissioners did last year when they approved issuing $25 million in debt to pay for expanding the county jail.
In late February, Eckert asked the City Council to consider funding demolition of the existing courthouse and donating land for the new building. He also asked for help building parking.
In return, the city would get the site of the old courthouse, which could be transformed into a public park.
County and city officials say partnering to build a new courthouse would advance the city’s effort in recent years to redevelop the long-blighted downtown.
“We are facing the same thing: We have aging buildings,” District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant said. “. . . The only problem is we need the courthouse now. The other side of it is we need an opportunity to feel out what type of alternatives can we look at” that could ultimately save money.
City Council members have suggested building a joint facility with space for city offices — a possibility that officials discussed on Tuesday along with the potential land swap.
Several of the elected officials said they were concerned about costs, making it important not to overbuild.
A possible site discussed for a new courthouse was the area currently home to the Odessa American building at 222 E. Fourth St., a plan that could require buying other real estate nearby. The city bought the OA facility and nearby parking lot for about $1.6 million in 2016.
Part of the committee’s work will be examining potential costs of acquiring other surrounding buildings and demolishing them.
The committee may also explore finding a private entity to build the courthouse in a lease-to-buy arrangement so the entities could avoid taking on debt and asking voters to approve a bond. District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton also suggested finding a private partner, such as an oil company, that would consider investing in infrastructure like parking.
The elected officials, who made no final decisions on a courthouse partnership, agreed Tuesday to meet in a week to appoint the committee members.
“There is no person in here that doesn’t agree that our courthouse is failing,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Eddy Shelton said. “The structure is failing rapidly, so the question of the need for a courthouse has already been answered. It’s just how can we build it?”