In the middle of the last decade, the Rockwall County Commissioners Court went to the voters requesting approval of a bond to build a “government center” on land that had previously been purchased adjacent to I-30 and just east of Texas 205. This bond request was not approved by the voters.
The following year, the Commissioners Court again put on the ballot another request to build a new courthouse on this same piece of land. Again, this bond request was not approved.
In 2008, the Commissioners Court made the decision to issue tax notes – which did not need voter approval – to build a new Rockwall County Courthouse on the same property as described in the previous bond elections. As one might expect, this action created significant voter unrest that still simmers in the minds of many people.
When I ran for county judge in 2010, one of the main issues I built my campaign on was the new courthouse and the “process” that was used to authorize the building of this facility after the voters had twice voted against its construction. Please note the distinction between the “process” and the actual decision to build this new courthouse.
Last week, I met a friend I had not seen for over a year. As we discussed various subjects, he suddenly made the statement, “I sure wish they had never built that new courthouse at over $40 million dollars.”
Let’s talk facts about that new courthouse. It was budgeted to cost $37.2 million and the actual cost was about $36.8 million; an under run of $400,000. It was scheduled to be finished in October 2011. It was finished on time and people started moving to the new building during this same month. It was formally dedicated on 11/11/11. The construction company bid the job with a four percent profit. That was the number they received; no overruns and delivered on time.
The initial design of the courthouse was for three floors to be built that would hold four courtrooms, the county and district clerks offices and the district attorney’s office.
But, once discussions started on the layout of the building, it was learned that an adjacent county had also built a new courthouse, but because of rapid growth, they had found it necessary to build an addition to the building three years after it was dedicated. Hearing this, the court made the decision to build an additional floor in the building so that four additional courtrooms could be built as the demand increased. Now, the total courthouse was built with enough capacity to accommodate the county needs through the year 2035.
Initially, the extra floor was to remain empty, and then as the need for additional courtrooms surfaced, they would be built on the empty floor. However, once the courthouse was dedicated, it became apparent this extra empty space could be used immediately to house county offices that were located in leased space or other county buildings no longer needed.
Accordingly, all four of the Justice of the Peace (JP) offices were moved to this floor along with the county treasurer, the Indigent Health Office, and the County Human Relations office. Other offices such as the auditor, Agriculture Extension, Tax Assessor, State Trooper and Driver’s License, and Election office were moved to other empty spaces in county buildings that were made available as a result of the space now provided with the new courthouse.
There is still sufficient empty space on the “extra” floor to build at least one more courtroom. It is projected this will not be needed until 2020. The next courtroom needed after this will require movement of some of the offices that are temporarily located on this extra floor. And that is about the same time that it will become necessary to build a county administrative building, probably on the space located on the courthouse grounds that front Yellow Jacket Lane.
What about the dollars spent on this new courthouse that was built without the voters’ approval?
The 25 year bonds were issued on June 1, 2009 at a 4.69 percent rate. At the start of this fiscal year, $34,983,309 was owed on the debt. The total debt of the county is $152,986,772. Because of the new courthouse and the space it offers, three other county buildings have been sold and three leases that the county paid for each year have been canceled. The sale of the buildings resulted in a deposit of $1.75 million to our treasury and the cancellation of the three leases resulted in an annual lease saving of $87,000.
Was it a good decision to build the new courthouse? In my opinion, yes. Was it done the right way? In my opinion, no.
Hopefully, the county and the voters have all learned a good lesson – the voters must be involved and must know what is happening in local government. Government must go out of its way to keep the voters informed AND the citizens must be involved in government. As a citizen, vote and demand information from your elected officials.
Jerry Hogan is the County Judge in Rockwall County. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 214-394-4033.