Aransas County Commissioners, at their regular meeting Monday, Dec. 28, unanimously approved a new lease for the courthouse space currently being used in the Harbor Oaks Village Shopping Center, along with an additional $25,920 payment for 2020 due to increased costs (taxes, insurance). The court also discussed leasing the area that was once used by Cinema 4 (on the opposite end of the shopping center), but will make that decision at a later date.

The agenda item read, “Discuss, and approve or disapprove TFP Properties III, LLC’s (TFP) requests made to the County pursuant to the June 1, 2019 lease, including but not limited to issues such as additional rent for extra space for the County; raising of the rent for the future; and an additional payment requested by TFP for 2020.”

County Attorney Kristen Barnebey reviewed a few details from emails between her office and TFP representative Dawn Elzey regarding calculations used for the new lease, the extra payment for 2020, and the proposed new lease for the Cinema 4 space.

Current lease vs. new lease

The current lease is $15,840/mo. It will increase to $18,000/mo., a jump of 13.64%.

That increase, as well as the additional $25,920 payment for 2020, is due primarily to increases in insurance premiums, as well as taxes, now being charged TFP.

Elzey said the valuation of the shopping center increased to about $9 million this year (under the new appraisal method), and the Aransas County Appraisal District (ACAD) dropped it to $4.8 million after appeal. The current reduced appraisal is roughly double what it was before the appraisal method for commercial property was changed.

“The ACAD was unsympathetic to the affect COVID-19 (had on commercial properties),” said Elzey.

She noted the property’s value was steady for roughly seven years prior to the change in appraisal method.

She also said insurance rates have increased dramatically since Hurricane Harvey.

Commissioner Jack Chaney asked if a provision for the $25,920 extra payment for 2020 is outlined in the lease.

“That is contemplated in the lease,” said Barnebey.

Leasing the Cinema 4 space

Elzey offered the old Cinema 4 space to the county for $9,539/mo.

“Why are we talking (about the theater space)?” asked Chaney. “I haven’t heard anything (about that).”

Aransas County Court-at-Law Judge Richard Bianchi said due to COVID-19 restrictions, if the county is going to have a jury panel, additional space is needed.

(Note: In the old courthouse individuals on a jury panel were lined up in the foyer, hallways, and outside.)

Bianchi noted San Patricio County is utilizing its fair grounds for extra space.

“Some county’s are using school district (facilities),” he said. “Ours (Aransas County Independent School District) isn’t allowing that.”

Commissioner Bubba Casterline asked if calling a smaller jury pool is possible.

It was noted the number of jurors called to serve is pretty standard to ensure a jury can be seated.

County IT Director Collin Jackson said it could run close to $200,000 to equip the current temporary courtrooms with adequate audio/video equipment so that lawyers could gauge jurors’ body language, as well as responses to questions.

In order for the Cinema 4 space to be utilized for courts, it will have to be approved by Regional Administrative Judge Sid Harle, as well as the state supreme court, according to Bianchi.

County Attorney-elect Amanda Oster said, “I think it’s a little premature (to make a decision about using the Cinema 4 space) since the judges haven’t approved it.”

Commissioners also talked about renting the Cinema 4 space on a daily basis ($750/day).

Elzey said that could happen, but if a permanent lessee approached TFP then that tenant would get the space.

Casterline said, “I think it would be premature to enter into a lease (for the Cinema 4 space) without information (about how much it will cost to outfit the space for court use).”

Bianchi said delaying a decision about the Cinema 4 space isn’t a major issue, but there are individuals in jail awaiting jury trials. He noted there are six inmates who have been incarcerated about six months, and another three who have been in jail more than one year, waiting for a jury trial.

Chaney asked if district judges are going to allow the county more time to hold jury trials (due to the current circumstances)

“Pre-COVID we had about one jury trial per month,” said Barnebey.

Chaney responded, “I think we need to look at this (leasing the extra space) a little more.

County Auditor Jacky Cockerham noted the additional cost to lease extra space is not included in the 2021 budget.

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