After voters rejected a $95 million bond for a new Ector County Courthouse, county leaders scooped up properties along Texas Avenue, knowing they still wanted to replace the crowded and failing facility across the street. Once they figured out how to pay for a new courthouse, the county could build it there.
But one property remained — Amigo’s Bonding Service, a small business that presented the county with a unique challenge because of its owner.
Since she inherited the business years ago, Debbie Clay, who has worked decades for the county, has occupied an unusual role. She is close to Ector County Commissioners Court, working as the elected officials’ administrative assistant. And her business, with a few employees, writes bonds payable to the county if a defendant doesn’t show up.
Now, amid a renewed push by county and city officials to build a new courthouse, Clay could face negotiating with her public official bosses about buying her private business. But county officials, trying to build public support for the project, say they can avoid the perception of any conflict, such as Clay benefitting from her role with the commissioners.
“There’s inherently the perception that there is going to be a conflict, so you have to make double-sure that there’s not,” Ector County Attorney Dusty Gallivan said.
Ways Gallivan said the county can avoid a conflict include commissioning a market analysis of the property to determine its value and negotiating through third parties.
Another solution might lie in asking the Odessa City Council to negotiate for the property and purchase it with municipal funds, Ector County Judge Ron Eckert said.
“It’s not a perfect Chinese wall, but it is somewhat of a wall because you do have another entity negotiating that,” Eckert said. “It’s how I think it should work.”
The Ector County Appraisal District estimates the value of the property at 300 N. Texas Ave. and nearby land used for parking at more than $100,000. But a fair market value could be a greater amount. And Eckert said it would not be unusual to consider factors such as costs of displacing a business.
Clay declined to answer questions about how she would negotiate a possible sale of the property before someone approaches her about selling it, which she said has not happened.
“There’s not been any conflict of interest because I’ve never been involved in anything” related to real estate acquisitions, Clay said. She cited uncertainty about whether a new courthouse would be built in saying it was premature to discuss how she would negotiate selling her property.
“The bond issue failed,” Clay said. “Who knows what’s going to happen.”
During a public workshop this week, where Clay was among the attendees, county officials pointed to her property as one of four they would need to acquire to build the new courthouse.
County officials want to move quickly. Commissioners on Monday are scheduled to discuss taking out $85 million in debt for a new courthouse, which could include money for land acquisitions.
Eckert said he favors financing the new courthouse through debt for fear that if voters again reject a courthouse bond, the project could be delayed for years. The judge said he also worried about rising construction costs in the booming economy.
“It would be a bad business deal, in my view, to wait and wait and wait,” Eckert said. “Then your cost has gone up.”
The other three properties are on Jackson Avenue — a lawyer’s office, a halfway house and Ranch Supply Co.
A courthouse committee comprised of city and county officials was tasked Tuesday with projecting costs of acquiring and demolishing the properties. The properties surround the Odessa American building at 222 E. Fourth St., which the city bought along with a nearby parking lot for about $1.6 million in 2016.
The courthouse committee’s work is expected to include reaching out to the property owners for an asking price, a process that has already begun.
“As elected officials, if they pay more than market value, they are going to have to answer for it,” Gallivan said. “They are just going to have to be able to explain it, for whatever reason.”
County officials hope the city will share the costs of the project, as the committee explores building a joint facility with space for city offices.
Eckert asked the Odessa City Council in late February to consider shouldering costs such as acquiring the four properties, demolishing them along with the OA and the existing courthouse, and then donating land for the new building. He also asked for help building parking.
In return, Eckert said the city would advance its goal of redeveloping downtown and get the site of the old courthouse, which could be transformed into a public park.
“Critical to the deal is land acquisition and I hope that we are not held up as far as the progress of the courthouse because of these properties,” Eckert said. He said the county might consider eminent domain if an asking price is too high but would want to avoid it.
But, whatever happens, Gallivan said he expects commissioners will tread carefully when it comes to Clay’s property.
“It’s come up in the past that we thought we wanted to acquire that property,” Gallivan said. “But since she does work for the county, it does make things more difficult, and that probably accounts for why it hasn’t happened.”