As noted in this newspaper last week, a petition is circulating in our community to put the decision to issue debt to fund the construction of a new county courthouse and related facilities (known as the Downtown Anchor Project) to a public vote, rather than allow County commissioners to make this decision. I note the Commissioners have the legal authority to make the decision to issue the debt in question unless a timely and lawful petition is filed with the county, forcing an election. I fully support the fundamental right of the citizenry to lawfully petition government. However, I strongly believe that the petition in this case is unnecessary, unwarranted, and misguided.
As best I can tell, there has been complete transparency about every aspect of the Downtown Anchor Project by all participants working on the matter. This newspaper has diligently and fully reported on the project from the outset, which started shortly after Harvey. This prompts me to ask – hasn’t the Downtown Anchor Project been debated, discussed, and belabored to a point of no end? And now a petition drive to force a public election?
This newspaper’s editor and publisher wrote a compelling editorial Aug. 5 about much of the rationale for the project, along with an informative historical perspective on other lost opportunities in our community over the years. Aransas County really has no choice about building a new courthouse. The Downtown Anchor Project will not only house the county’s courthouse, all of the county’s staff and functions, it will also include a new city hall for the City of Rockport (which will be paid for by the city and not the county) and an outdoor plaza.
Like many others in our community, I believe the county should design and build a facility with adequate square footage, capacity, and layout that will last for many, many years to come. When County commissioners last considered this matter (July 13), before the tax and funding numbers related to the project were known with certainty, it was reasonably believed by commissioners the county would be able to increase the project budget and expand the planned facilities by 9,000 square feet, with no increase in the county I & S tax rate. In order to comply with legal requirements relating to debt issuance of this type, commissioners approved a resolution of intent to issue up to $24.5 million in debt. This was not a commitment to issue this exact amount of debt, but a not to exceed amount in order to keep all options open. On August 3, County commissioners belief was confirmed after the county received the final certified values from the Aransas County Appraisal District.
I now understand from one of the County commissioners that the amount of debt required for the project has been reduced from $24.5 million to $19.9 million. The breakdown of the $19.9 million follows: $17.24 million for the courthouse (an increase from the original budget of $14.25 million in order to pay for the additional 9,000 square feet and to cover cost overrun contingencies) and $2.66 million for other contingencies and needs unrelated to the courthouse. None of these numbers include the approximate $9.9 million in insurance recoveries and FEMA grants already received by the county and are committed to the project.
With interest rates at historically low levels, and the ability to increase the budget for the new facilities at a reduced I & S tax rate from the current rate, it makes little rational sense to delay going forward with the project in order to conduct a countywide election on the matter.
An election would only delay, complicate, and increase the cost of the project. I am advised the county cannot set and approve a tax rate to pay for the project debt until the debt has been issued. The planned issue date for the debt is Sept. 14, 2020 (public notice appeared in this newspaper). If a public election turned down the issuance of the project debt, I also understand that the county will not be able to issue certificates of obligation until three years have passed. Apparently, that is the “penalty” that is paid when an electorate disapproves of specific project debt. Thus, the project will be dead in the water for at least three years. During this time, county and city government will be forced to operate in post Harvey temporary quarters, which are not efficient or fully effective for operations. Further, delay will undoubtedly increase the total cost of the project. Interest rates will likely increase from today’s historically low levels and construction costs will likely increase due to inflation. These “all in” increased costs would most likely exceed the cost of the additional 9,000 square feet that prompted the petition. In other words, the county could end up with inadequate facilities and spending more than the approximate $3 million in costs that are at issue. A penny-wise decision today would result in a pound-foolish future outcome.
I was the president of Rockport Country Club when Harvey struck our community. Like many businesses, non-profits, and governmental entities, our facilities sustained substantial damage. We had the foresight and blessing to have very good insurance coverage, but we stood at a crossroad early on.
We could take our insurance money and rebuild our facilities like they were before the storm and not take on debt and related future expense, or take on additional debt and rebuild for the future. We decided to go down the path of the future. While we lost many members after the storm, we have fully recovered and our membership now stands at levels we have not seen in many years. We are optimistic about our future, we have remained open and are surviving through the pandemic, and I believe we are one of the many institutions that attract newcomers to Aransas County. All of this because we decided not to take a short-term view but, rather, rebuild for the future.
Aransas County is at a cross road with respect to the Downtown Anchor Project. Does it really want to miss out on another opportunity or go down the path of the future? Again, I respectfully urge the citizens of Aransas County not to sign the petition and that the petition organizers withdraw from their efforts to force an election.