Turnover in the county’s top job next week could bring with it a shift in the county’s strategy for replacing the Ector County Courthouse, with incoming County Judge Debi Hays saying she wants to explore options that incumbent Ron Eckert had rejected outright.
Those include partnering with a private investor or leasing a facility long-term to avoid taking on debt — possibilities Hays said she still intends to consider, after suggesting those options ahead of the Republican primary in March. Eckert, in a plan that relied on help from the City of Odessa, had been set on taking on debt so the county could fund building a new courthouse.
But in a 3-2 vote on April 23, commissioners rejected Eckert’s proposal to begin pursuing an $85 million debt issuance. That prompted Eckert’s decision to resign on June 11, when commissioners are also scheduled to appoint Hays to replace him.
Hays said she agrees with commissioners and Eckert that the courthouse cannot be rehabilitated and must be replaced. And she said she wants to keep working with city officials to consider ways the two governmental bodies can share the courthouse replacement burden.
At Eckert’s urging, officials with both governments formed a committee in April to explore options such as a joint facility. The committee was also tasked with studying costs and examining ways the city could support the development, such as buying and demolishing real estate surrounding 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.
“I am not going to discontinue the meetings between the city and the county — I’m going to encourage those to continue and for us to move forward,” Hays said. “There is no sense in trying to stop the wheel or reinvent the wheel. I am all about looking at every single option that is out there and every single plan.”
But unlike Eckert, Hays said she expects to meet with potential private investors.
“There are individuals that have expressed interest that would like to have a conversation once I’m in office,” Hays said, declining to name them.
Hays said the county needs to do more to understand the cost of replacing the courthouse before moving to take on debt, siding with a majority of commissioners. She said the county needs to update the 2013 courthouse feasibility study commissioned before a $95 million bond election that voters overwhelmingly rejected. Eckert had used that study to come up with the $85 million debt figure and said the savings reflected the city’s participation.
Hays, who said she was not ready to rule out another bond election, said the county might be able to update that needs assessment on its own or it might require outside help.
“I don’t want to rush into anything and I don’t want to kneejerk,” Hays said. “But in the same breath I know there are several items that will have to be addressed in the existing courthouse that are on the last leg.”
She said she recently toured the courthouse with a county building official to examine the condition of the facility.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Dale Childers, who is one of two commissioners on the city and county subcommittee, said so far the officials have met twice.
He said they revisited and ruled out renovating the courthouse, started studying costs and discussed partnering with private investors on a project such as turning the former courthouse site into a park.
He described a joint facility as unlikely and believes the county should pay for the building outright.
“I just think the county can fund it itself, and I think it would be more attractive for us to do that cost-wise,” Childers said, adding that he looked forward to working with Hays. “One of the good things about having new blood is new ideas.”
He said Eckert’s most important contributions were proposing the creation of a county sales tax district and “pushing to keep the courthouse in the limelight,” including through the creation of the committee.
Voters rejected a sales tax district in a November election marked by low turnout, but commissioners are scheduled to call another election at the same meeting where they will appoint Hays. Childers said new sales tax revenue, if voters approve it, would better position the county to invest in the courthouse.
Even still, Childers said he favors debt as the fastest way to replace the building, which he described as an urgent need.
“It’s become a safety issue: The building is so small, it’s overcrowded, not to mention the fact that it’s costing the county a lot of money in maintenance,” Childers said.
Eckert had also argued for debt as the best option, and described an alternative lease-to-buy arrangement as a “bad business deal for the county.”
“I have questions as to whether you’d ever pay that lease off and if you don’t then some investors just get rich off of it,” Eckert said.
Hays said it’s worth studying at least, noting that private and public cooperation is common in Texas, including in Odessa’s downtown, where a city-supported hotel and convention center is being built.
“If it’s a bad idea, I’m not going to do it,” Hays said.
Whatever option the county ultimately pursues, Hays said she promised a “new direction of growth and transparency and accountability” in deciding.
“We need to make sure that we have looked at all of our options and delivered those options to the public,” she said.