Liberty County commissioners OK agreement to purchase land for new law enforcement center

Liberty County Judge Jay Knight

By Vanesa Brashier,

Liberty County Commissioners Court has negotiated a purchase agreement for a 39-acre tract that will be the site of a new law enforcement center. The agreement was approved during an early-morning meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 4.

The County and the seller, Jesse Lopez, have a $50,000 earnest money agreement in place with closing expected within the next 90 days, according to County Judge Jay Knight. The purchase price is not being disclosed at this time, but Knight said the County got a good deal from Lopez.

“We have been looking for land for roughly two years. This tract was offered by a good man with good intentions to help the county,” Knight said.

With swampland to the south and west of Liberty, the best option for the law enforcement center was to the north on SH 146. State law mandates that the sheriff’s office must be located in the county seat, so moving the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office outside the Liberty city limits was not an option.

The property under contract is located in the 5200 block of SH 146 adjacent to the old Schwan’s grocery delivery headquarters. The City of Liberty already has facilities on the property, including a water well, so access to water and sewer services will not be a problem, Knight said.

An aerial image from Google maps shows the location of the property being purchased by Liberty County for a law enforcement center.

“The money for the property was left over from the sale of the old Walmart building that the county owned. We had to do some clarification from governmental entities to make sure we were doing this correctly but it looks like we will be in good shape,” the judge said.

The new law enforcement center will have space for the sheriff’s office, emergency management, game wardens and an after-hours office for the Texas Ranger assigned to Liberty County. A stand-alone office for the Liberty County Pct 3. Justice of the Peace and Pct. 3 Constable’s Office will be on the property.

“We found the boundaries of Pct. 3 include that parcel, so now we will be able to include them and get out of that rented building they are in right now. I’ve been working to get the county out of that renting business for a long time,” Knight said.

The county eventually may relocate the jail to the new site but that could be a decade or more into the future, he added.

Designs for the new buildings should be ready for commissioners court within the next 30 days.

“Our goal was to get the sheriff’s office out of a residential area without any encumbrances like the train,” Knight said. “Having the sheriff’s office and emergency management in the same building is ideal. Any time we have a breakdown in communication during disasters, it’s been law enforcement and emergency management.”

Plans for the new law enforcement center already are being drafted by architect Kenny Burns, who is also designing plans for a new judicial center that will be located on the site of the old defunct county jail, which has been out of use for years. The County will likely use certificates of obligation to fund both projects.

Knight believes the County’s current financial standing – low debt and high credit rating – have positioned it to build both facilities concurrently.

“We can afford to do this right now because our debt is so low. Four and a half years ago, we were looking at $13 million in debt and now we are down to $8 million. We got our bond rating back to AA, which helps us get a good interest rate,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting an idea of what the total costs will be.”

The new law enforcement center, Knight estimates, will have a price tag somewhere between $15 million and $20 million, which does not include the jail, which would significantly raise the costs.

“The cost to build a new jail would be $450 to $500 a square foot. The only thing more expensive than a jail is a hospital. We are going to keep our jail viable, depending on population growth, for at least another 10 years. The jail holds around 278 prisoners and we are averaging a jail population of 220,” he said.

Knight attributes the modest jail population to efforts being made at the district courts and county court at law courts to quickly transition those charged with minor crimes to probation and deferred adjudication and to process felony cases so guilty prisoners can be sent to prison.

Earlier this week, Judge Don Taylor was sworn in as the interim judge for Liberty County Court at Law No. 2. The court will eventually be located in the old tax office space in the county courthouse, but for now will be meeting in the old law library on Trinity Street.

“I look for Judge Taylor to start having a docket pretty soon. We are setting him up in the old law library but he may also use the district courtrooms when they are not in use. It’s just a matter of scheduling,” Knight said.

Texas Correctional Industries, using inmate labor, will design furniture for the new courtroom. Pews formerly used by a church were purchased by the County for seating. The judge said the furniture will be adequate, but not fancy, as the court will be moved to the judicial center once it is complete.

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