Aransas County Commissioners, at their regular meeting Monday, July 13, approved Resolution #R-25-2020, a resolution authorizing publication of notice of intention to issue certificates of obligation in an amount not to exceed $24,250,000 (see legal notice in this edition of The Rockport Pilot). That action was taken after hearing a report from Long Term Recovery Team member William Whitson, PGAL’s Paul Bonnette, and Architexas’ Larry Irsik about the county’s portion of the Downtown Anchor Project (new courthouse, and the area’s shared with the City of Rockport - Celebration Plaza, community building, and parking area).
The discussion took place during two agenda items, prior to addressing the certificates of obligation.
Hurricane Harvey destroyed the courthouse and Rockport City Hall. The Downtown Anchor Project, which includes a new courthouse, city hall, a Celebration Plaza, a community building, and parking, is designed to make sure the heart of downtown Rockport doesn’t wilt away, according to Whitson.
“We wanted to make sure this is a bounce back project,” he said.
After the trio talked about projected costs and presented the proposed rough drawings of the courthouse, it was determined the county needs to build a larger courthouse at this time or risk building something that is too small by the time it is completed, or is outgrown in about 10 years.
Whitson noted the county was working on a courthouse replacement prior to Harvey, buying surrounding land, etc.
FEMA grant money and the insurance settlement totals almost $10 million. The projected cost for the courthouse, as discussed at Monday’s meeting, is approximately $21 million.
“You’re getting about a 45% discount (grant and insurance settlement divided by estimated cost) on the replacement of something (that needed to be replaced),” said Whitson.
He added, “We’ve always known we would have to borrow money, we just didn’t know how much.”
RBC Capital Market’s Robert Henderson outlined how the county could pay for a larger courthouse, with little affect on the tax rate, by issuing debt at this time, when interest rates are historically low, and as the county is paying off it’s low debt load.
Bonnette presented an overview of the rough floor plan for the two-story facility, with the district courtroom, county clerk and justices of the peace offices, commissioners’ court, indigent healthcare, Veterans Affairs office, and IT/maintenance on the first floor; and district and county courtrooms, and county judge, county attorney, county treasurer, and auditor offices on the second.
Irsik explained the exterior shows strength, with the main entrance facing south toward the plaza.
The materials used could be masonry, or even part shellcrete, tying into local history.
“It’s going to be really identifiable,” said Irsik. “It has a vertical feature featuring a clock face that will be illuminated at night.”
Bonnette noted the plans are very preliminary at this point, but said it is possible bids could go out during the first quarter of 2021.
(Note: a public hearing regarding the proposed new courthouse was held Tuesday, July 14.)
Commissioner Charles Smith said he didn’t think the 215 parking spaces to be provided on the site of the former courthouse will be enough parking.
“There are a 100-plus county employees,” he said. “There go half the spaces.”
Commissioner Bubba Casterline noted once the county hits 50,000 population the number of justices of the peace will increase to four, and they will all have to be housed in their precinct, not at the courthouse.
He also questioned placing the courthouse facing south, toward the plaza.
“If you’re going down the street it looks like your looking at the back door,” said Casterline.
Bonnette said the three buildings are all designed similarly, and set on the site in such a way for “community”.
(Note: PGAL is also designing city hall, but under a separate contract.)
The design presented at Monday’s meeting met the financial restraints, which the county had initially placed on the project.
When the question was asked about how long the courthouse, in the size designed, will last, Bonnette gave his estimate, but added the site layout is such that expansion can occur to the north or west, if/when needed.
The design provides plenty of space at the main entrance to allow for security devices, which may be needed in the future.
It was noted the commissioners’ court space will be about half the size it is now in the temporary courthouse.
“As we get larger, having anything smaller than what we have here could be a problem,” said Commissioner Jack Chaney.
That was when the discussion turned to building a larger courthouse.
“You could go to a third floor, adding an additional 10,000 sq. ft. for an additional $10 million,” said Whitson.
He noted, however, the Long Term Recovery Team came up with the plan presented based on the restraints it was given.
“It has not been easy,” said Whitson.
“We don’t want to build something that’s going to be too small in a few years,” said Casterline.
“If you (commissioners) and the public want it bigger, this is the time to make that decision,” said Whitson. “The plan in front of you is good for the next 10 to 15 years.”
Smith asked if another option might be to purchase additional surrounding land now, and construct additional buildings when needed.
District Clerk Pam Heard said the space for her office in the current plan is too small.
“Right now we have eight employees and (this plan) is designed for seven,” said Heard.
Casterline recalled traveling to Zapata before Harvey to inspect its new courthouse.
“They said the day they opened it was too small,” said Casterline. “We don’t want to do that.”
Henderson then gave the court a solution to funding expanding the courthouse plans, noting the county’s current debt can be refunded from the current 4% down to about 1-1/2%.
“The county has about a $15 million need (based on the plan presented Monday) and that can be done with no tax rate increase at all,” said Henderson.
That would be due to refunding current debt at a lower interest rate, and the paying off of a portion of the current debt based on the current payment schedule.
“It’s a great time to issue debt (because of historically low interest rates),” he said.
He noted to expand the courthouse plans as discussed, the county needs an additional $10 million, which would increase the I&S portion of the tax rate about 1.6¢.
“We could go back to 55,000 sq. ft. (from the 46,000 sq. ft. shown at Monday’s meeting) for pennies on the dollar,” said Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills.
Henderson also noted the county’s current debt load will drop below $1 million in four years, without issuing new debt.
“I think this is the time to do it all,” said Chaney. “It’s not going ot get much lower (interest rates).”
Henderson agreed, adding, “Why pay $20 million for a courthouse (as shown at Monday’s meeting) if its going to be too small when you open.”
Smith said, “The decision today is to keep our options open.”
The reason the resolution authorizing publication of notice of intention to issue certificates of obligation had to be made at Monday’s meeting is the time table required to meet all the requirements prior to setting the tax rate in a few months.
“Your direction to us is to still get you the lowest cost possible,” said Whitson.