'Do y'all have guts enough to vote for it?'

County considers $27 million justice center

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Rather than just making repairs to a leaky roof and overseeing mold remediation at the jail and sheriff’s office, Burns Architecture LLC is now proposing a $27 million Austin County Justice Center, which could mean a bond election is on the horizon for local taxpayers.

Discussion ensued during a Monday meeting of the Austin County Commissioners Court about planning for the future, whether the public would support a bond issue and how to fulfill promises already made to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Precinct 3 Commissioner Randy Reichardt laid a burning question on the table.

“Do y’all have guts enough to vote for it?” he asked, referring to a potential bond election.

Commissioners agreed that they want to plan for the future rather than “hide under a rock” and let future generations deal with the problem.

Judge Tim Lapham suggested that commissioners spend the next two weeks thinking about the matter and gathering feedback from constituents. The subject is scheduled to be revisited at the court’s April 23 meeting.

Kenny Burns, representing the architectural firm, presented several renderings and floor plans which can be viewed at sealynews.com. Burns said a questionnaire was issued to all county officials asking them to detail their specific office space needs.

“It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” Burns said. “In this case we have limited space to go into. I think we were pretty creative.”

He outlined plans for county offices, courtrooms, a parking area, covered walkway and detention pond to manage floodwater during construction.

“All of this is developed off information you gave us,” Burns said. “Everything you see is a representation of what you told us you need … Can [the offices] be bigger? If we felt like they needed to be bigger.”

A cost analysis presented by Burns included the following:

•New parking area, sidewalks, site utilities, detention pond: $1,050,000

•Relocation of temporary buildings: $75,000

•Building construction (site work, demolition, renovations, retrofitting, additions): $21,772,020

•Services (architectural/engineering fees, printing and reimbursable costs, topographic survey and geotechnical reports, financing fees, construction testing): $2,825,000

•Furniture, equipment and supplies: $665,000

The total estimated cost is $25.38 million. A 5 percent contingency was added to “give us some leeway,” Burns said, which brings the project estimate to $27.7 million.

Lapham asked for clarification on why the cost estimates have skyrocketed. Burns said others in the jail construction business have advised that his original estimates were low.

“They thought I was way off on the budget,” he said. “It did jump dramatically.”

Lapham expressed concern that the court was recently quoted in the local news saying that a brand new facility would be $24 million, and now they’re kicking around the number of $27 million for a remodel.

“We’re not comparing apples to apples, but that’s what was in the paper last week,” he said. “A new 114-bed facility is $24 million. [Criticism could come in the form of], ‘What are you fools doing spending $27 million on 96 beds?’ We’ve got to be careful.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mark Lamp pointed out the value in getting a justice center complex that could be a viable building for county offices that would last many years into the future. The new plan shows increased square footage and improves upon the existing 60-year-old courthouse, where county employees are working “on top of each other” because of cramped spaces.

Lapham pointed out that a 30 year bond at 3 percent would require $1.4 million payments.

“If [Texas Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick has his way, you might as well throw all of that in the trash,” he said.

Burns cautioned that the court should work to ensure that “the jail commission stays on our side.”

In response to a question from Judge Lapham, the architect added that he’s confident in his cost estimates, but “even if you said for us to start designing today, it would be a year before the bids could come in.” Construction costs in Texas have risen about 7 percent per year, Burns added.

Lapham acknowledged that he wanted to explore options.

“I’m not saying don’t do anything; I’m just saying be careful what we pay for,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re doing this in the most effective way. Is this the most efficient way to get this office space? If we’re going to spend $27 million, I want to make sure when I sleep at night, we’ve looked at every option, because right now this is the only option we’ve looked at.”

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