Republican candidates to become the next Ector County judge split on a strategy for replacing the courthouse and argued whether the county’s top administrator should hold a law license as they pitched themselves to lead a financially troubled government during an Ector County Bar Association forum on Thursday.

One of the candidates is businesswoman Debi Hays, who argues that Ector County should prioritize financial acumen and a management background over a legal license and that most counties throughout the state are not run by attorneys. The other candidate is Chris Fostel, a prosecutor who resigned his position in the Ector County District Attorney’s office to run for the top county job and who argues that it’s critical for the county judge to hear misdemeanor criminal cases.

The attorneys in the room asked mostly about longstanding issues: Shoring up funds for a county facing the likelihood of another budget deficit and addressing a courthouse in disrepair.

The candidates listed different priorities — Hays said her primary concern is tackling the county’s budget crisis and Fostel cited infrastructure, calling for asking the state and federal government for more road funding.

Both say they support creating a sales tax district for unincorporated areas of Ector County, which county officials estimate would raise about $15 million a year, or more than a fourth of the county’s current expenditure budget that relies mostly on property taxes. Incumbent county judge Ron Eckert said he plans to seek a May election on the issue after voters shot it down in November.

Hays and Fostel said they aren’t set on a solution for the courthouse.

But Hays, ranking the issue as one of her top three priorities, offered a proposal to build a new courthouse that she’s discussed in recent weeks: Finding a private company to build a new courthouse and the county entering a lease-to-buy arrangement.

Hays argued it’s a strategy that would allow the county to avoid public debt, and building extra space to rent could allow that.

“The courthouse needs to be remodeled or replaced,” Hays said. “I don’t really know what the best solution to that is, but I would like to start a conversation with those of you in this room, the community and the taxpayers.”

Fostel didn’t offer a proposal for building a new courthouse but said Ector County voters might support a bond election if the county presented a better case than they did in 2013, when voters overwhelmingly shot down a $95 million bond issue.

“A bond might pass if people knew what they were voting for,” Fostel.

He rejected Hays proposal, describing it as a plan to “build a building and lease it like it’s a cheap Honda” and saying it showed a lack of “civic pride.”

Fostel argued, repeatedly, that electing Hays, who could hear some cases but not misdemeanors and contested probate cases, would cause a backlog for the two County Courts at Law. In turn, that would lead to higher crime including the felony cases that he used to try in court.

“This can’t just be the status quo in Odessa anymore,” Fostel said. “We can’t just set the bar in Odessa so low. If you take out a criminal court, that’s what’s going to happen.”

That prompted a rebuke from County Attorney Dusty Gallivan, who supports Hays, during the forum. Gallivan said any backlog depends most on who is running the county attorney’s office and argued he had reduced those left by his predecessors.

“I don’t like it when you try to use my office to instill fear in the voter that we will have a huge backlog if you are not elected,” Gallivan said. “Because that is not the case.”

Hays, for her part, said it’s more important to have a businessperson who can manage personnel and budget.

“If Ector County wants to be in the range of counties that still have attorneys and that’s what you need to do, then you need to vote for Mr. Fostel,” Hays said. “But the majority of counties in Texas do not agree with this logic.”

The Republican primary election will decide the race, because there are no other challengers in the race. The election is March 6. Early voting starts on Feb. 20.