County delays decision on justice complex

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Austin County commissioners opted last week to postpone a decision on issuing certificates of obligation to renovate, repair and construct the county jail and sheriff’s office, which have suffered from mold damage and leaky roofs and hold a bond election to build new offices for courtrooms and courthouse employees.

“I think we have a little flexibility,” said County Judge Tim Lapham, after financial advisers explained that certificates of obligation would have to be advertised in the newspaper twice before the court can move forward. “It kind of seems like we’re putting the cart before the horse if we vote to have a bond election before we do the [certificates of obligation].”

The court meets again Aug. 13, which allows enough time to get a bond issue on the ballot for November. The certificates of obligation do not have to be approved by the public.

“The jail and sheriff’s office cannot be in this bond election,” said architect Kenny Burns. “If the bond election fails and it’s included in there, you’ve now told the jail commission you’re going to fix it but you can’t fix it and you can’t go borrow money. We have a little bit of a problem. That’s why this project is complicated.”

To properly fix the jail, the sheriff’s office has to be displaced – so the sheriff’s office and jail have to be packaged together, Burns explained, suggesting that certificates of obligation be issued rather than risking a failed bond election.

“That was my big concern,” said Commissioner Randy Reichardt. “If the bond election fails, the jail shuts down … If we don’t pass the bond, we’re done.”

Burns suggested waiting on design work until Dec. 1, after the bond election, meaning no money needs to change hands until the end of the year. County officials have been in talks with Lower Colorado River Authority about moving a power line in order to allow for expansion. That cost could be folded into the bond election, Burns said.

What’s proposed now is $11 million to be issued in certificates of obligation for the county jail and sheriff’s office. That includes about $640,000 for site work, $8 million for building construction, $1.4 million for services such as engineering fees and $280,000 for furniture, equipment and supplies.

The bond referendum would be about $15 million for a county justice center and would include $600,000 for site work, $11.6 million for construction, $1.7 million for services and $425,000 for furniture, equipment and supplies.

If the bond election, which would be held in November, does not pass, commissioners could still go forward with meeting their obligation to the jail commission by issuing certificates of obligation and doing construction, renovations and repairs at the jail and sheriff’s office and jail.

Commissioner Mark Lamp pointed out that the county is trying to prepare for the future and construct quality buildings that will last for generations.

“We’re looking forward into the future as this county grows,” he said. “We are trying to rectify the problems with the jail. That we have to do, but we still have problems with the courthouse. We still have problems with every building that the county owns. People need to understand, it’s pay me now or pay me later.”

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