By Vanesa Brashier, email@example.com
Tuesday, July 2, may bring a momentous decision in Liberty County’s future. Commissioners are expected to decide on a contract for the professional services of Burns Architecture, LLC, of Austin, regarding the construction of three new county buildings – a multi-purpose judicial center to be built on the site of the former county jail in Liberty, a law enforcement complex, also in Liberty, to relocate the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement-related agencies, and a new building in Hardin for the Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace office and courtroom.
Last week, Liberty County Judge Jay Knight and commissioners met with Kenny Burns of Burns Architecture, LLC, of Austin, to discuss how the firm can help the county with consulting, planning and designing the three new buildings.
A new multi-purpose judicial center, as Knight foresees it, will be a multi-story building with a covered parking garage on the premises. According to Knight, the building will be designed with future growth in mind.
The multi-purpose judicial center will house all of the county’s four courtrooms, including the second county court at law recently approved by Texas Governor Greg Abbott through HB 717. The bill takes effect on Sept. 1, 2019.
In addition to the four courtrooms, Knight said there will be ample space in the multi-purpose judicial center for all of county offices currently located in the courthouse, those in the county annex on Cos Street and those in leased space, such as the county auditor’s office and the probation department.
“Right now we know it’s a necessity because we are out of room in the courthouse. We are leasing property right now because we have nowhere to put people. If we can consolidate, then we can dispose of the leased property,” Knight said. “We are looking at a five- to seven-story building. I am not sure how tall it will be yet because we must first define the user group for this building.”
With the creation of the new county court at law, the county is temporarily relocating the tax office to a leased building, so that the tax office space – located on the first floor of the courthouse – can be converted into a courtroom.
Once the county courthouse is vacated, restoration work can begin, which Knight says is desperately needed. The courthouse suffers from water damage, in part because its limestone exterior allows water to infiltrate through small fissures in the stone. Currently, the historic tapestries in the third-floor 75th State District Courtroom are in a state of disrepair as a result of water infiltration.
“At one time, Liberty County had the largest district courtroom in the state. I am not sure if it is still the largest, but it is definitely one of the most beautiful. But if we don’t make a move and come up with a plan, how can we restore it? It will be too far gone to restore it,” Knight said. “There is a lot of work needed on the courthouse, which was built in 1930. We want to make it last at least another 100 years.”
Knight is hopeful that the county can get grant funding for the restoration through the Texas Historical Commission with the help and guidance of the Liberty County Historical Commission.
Once the courthouse is repaired, it can be opened again for office space.
“I don’t want to make the courthouse a museum by any means,” Knight said.
Plans for a new law enforcement complex are a little more uncertain as the county must first find a suitable location within the city limits of Liberty.
“The statute reads that the sheriff’s office must be located in the confines of the municipality of the county seat. We can’t buy property and hold it by statute. We can only buy property if we have a plan,” Knight said. “When it comes down to it, there are not a lot of large acreage pieces that can be used in the city of Liberty.”
A large-acreage tract would allow the county to relocate the sheriff’s office and offices for the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas game wardens and Liberty County Office of Emergency Management. Knight hopes to see the county jail relocate from Beaumont Ave. to the law enforcement complex in the coming years.
The easiest and least expensive of the projects – a new Pct. 3 courtroom and offices – will be built on land already owned by the county on CR 2010 in Hardin. The county has leased a portable building for the courtroom and offices for the last 10 years, a point that frustrates Knight.
“We could have bought and paid for a structure twice over for what we’ve paid in lease payments,” the judge said.
The new structure will be built directly behind the leased portable building. Once it is complete, the portable building will be moved off site. This plan will avoid disruptions in service for Pct. 3 residents.
Funding to hire Burns Architecture, LLC, will come from a line item in the county budget for professional services that Knight says is seldom used.
“We have the funding available to engage the architect,” he said.
The timeline for construction of the buildings and the associated costs will be determined by the architecture firm, the judge said.
“It won’t mean more taxes. We have never raised the tax rate; however, the property tax appraisals have caused taxes to increase,” he said. “One funding option is a certificate of obligation. I would like to see us delay the payment start date while we pay off other obligations. Then this would kick in.”
Not planning for the county’s future growth is not an option, Knight said.
“Failing to plan is planning to fail. That was a popular saying at Texas A&M. Professor Dick Vrooman, who taught second-year design at A&M, used to say that a lot,” he said. “Nothing is etched in stone that we are going to do this, but we are planning now.”
CREATION OF COUNTY COURT AT LAW NO. 2
Knight says the Liberty County tax office will be moved out of the courthouse and into a new location on US 90 by Oct. 1.
“We have looked at some locations and hope to have some decisions made at the special meeting on Tuesday,” he said. “There are not a lot of new buildings going up around Liberty, so we are looking to lease a space.”
Moving the tax office will come with some challenges, like running network lines that connect the county tax office to Austin.
Approval for the second county court at law was a second attempt for the county. The first attempt failed because of what Knight calls “skewed reporting” to the Office of Court Administration.
“This could have been the result of an antiquated system and human factors in reporting,” the judge said. “We were able to prove up our numbers in the second go-round. It showed the growth pattern we have in the county and the caseload in the current county court at law.”
An added benefit of a second county court at law is that the district courts, which are frequently hearing civil and family law cases because of an overload of cases, can focus on felony cases.
“In a perfect world, the district courts would only handle felony cases – things like murders, assaults and robberies. When it gets down to it, the courts can help the county by being expedient with cases and moving people through the jail quicker,” said Knight, adding that this would reduce jail expenses. “Judicial systems should give speedy trials if a trial is being considered.”
As for who will be named judge of the new court, Knight said completion of the courtroom will help make that determination. If the timeline is close to an election season, the decision could be put to voters. If the timeline falls months from an election, commissioners court could appoint someone to temporarily serve until an election.
The special meeting on Tuesday, July 2, will begin at 8 a.m. in the County Court at Law Courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse, 1923 Sam Houston Ave. The public is always welcome to attend these meetings.