County continues talks on facilities, possible bond issue

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Austin County commissioners continued discussions on the future of county offices last week as Judge Tim Lapham reminded the court that if they want to issue bonds in November, they have to make a decision by mid-July.

The jail has been plagued with mold, and courthouse employees have complained of cramped offices, leaky roofs and a lack of storage space.

Officials appear to be leaning toward a bond issue but have acknowledged that they’ll need support from taxpayers.

“I would like to ask the sheriff if he sees the value in what we’re presenting to the people and the other department heads that would be moving out to that other potential building that they all support us on this because this is going to be one of the biggest builds that the county has done in a number of years and we hope it’s going to be something that’s going to last for a long time,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Mark Lamp. “I need to make sure that everybody that is involved in this move – the judge, the attorney’s office, the clerks, everybody – are believing in what we want to do for the county. If they’re not then we need to know why because we’re going to ask the citizens for a lot, each and every one of us. When that day comes we need to make sure we’ve got the right decision made for everyone involved.”

Options previously discussed for the sheriff’s office and jail include the following:

• Option 1 – Clean and replace necessary items due to mold; replace large front windows with smaller, higher-placed windows. Cost: $1 million.

• Option 2 – Renovate old part of jail; new sheriff’s office/Justice of the Peace/courtroom; renovate dispatch area; new parking area. Cost: $13 million.

• Option 3 – Option 2 plus second floor; additional parking; additional furniture, fixtures and equipment (FF&E). Cost: $20 million.

• Option 4 – Option 3 plus third floor; additional parking; additional furniture, fixtures and equipment. Cost: $27 million.

That’s just for law enforcement facilities. Additional options are on the table if a 20-year or 30-year bond is passed.

Lamp said he talked to an architect a few weeks ago and asked if they could look at building a two-story structure on existing county property.

“The problem is we have an overhead power line easement with LCRA right now,” he said. “That kind of infringes on the design of the building.”

Lamp and Judge Tim Lapham were scheduled to meet with architects and engineers late last week and said they would report back to the court.

Sheriff Jack Brandes said he was not in favor of a patch job.

“Anything we do, we need to take it to the people,” he said. “It’s going to cost money. The reason we’re in this situation is because of this patching business. It needs to be good for 15, 20, 25 years.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Randy Reichardt agreed.

“We just let things go until they fell apart,” he said. “You don’t do that at home, so why would you do it here? If the bond passes, then everything’s OK. If it fails, we’ve still got to fix the jail. We’re going to have to take a million dollars and piecemeal it.”

Lapham pointed out that if they spend the money on basic repairs, then go forward with a new construction project, “we’re going to rip out everything we just repaired.”

“That’s why we’re trying to decide if we’re going to build the sheriff’s office in the front or are we going to clean and rebuild the old part of the jail,” he said. “We’re trying to do it just one time.”

Reichardt pointed out that the city of Sealy previously agreed to a land swap so an EMS building could be housed within the city limits and a city park could be built on county-owned land.

“I really don’t understand,” Reichardt said. “All the city council is in favor of [the land swap] except for the lawyer and she’s throwing a wrench in the whole thing. This court has enough backbone to do what’s right.”

Lapham clarified that there is some new city leadership and they do not want to enter a 100-year lease with the county.

“They no longer appear to be interested in a park on Frydek Road,” he said.

Lamp said the situation – which has been in the works for eight years – is frustrating.

“It’s just crazy that they would be stonewalling this thing,” he said. “We need a facility. This is for the citizens of Sealy to have an EMS station. We’re getting pushback every step of the way. This is maddening.”

Commissioners agreed to keep the matter on the agenda. The court’s next meeting is at 9 a.m. June 11.

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