County seeks grant for courthouse repair

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Whether it’s a historical county treasure or an eyesore in the middle of the road, the Austin County Courthouse could soon be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Qualifying for inclusion on the list is one of the requirements for a grant the county is seeking to restore historic structures damaged by Hurricane Harvey.

“It is a 100 percent reimbursement grant. It can also potentially cover underlying conditions. If we got approved for that grant, then theoretically we pay for not just repairing and replacing all the damage that we’ve had, water damage from Harvey, but also for the underlying roof leaks. That’s what we would be asking for,” Assistant District Attorney Brandy Robinson told the commissioners at their May 28 meeting.

The Hurricane Harvey Disaster Assistance National Park Service Emergency Supplemental Grant administered by the Texas Historical Commission comes with strings attached and a $10,000 gamble.

According to Robinson, the estimated project cost is about $125,000. That cost includes about $10,000 for an architect to review and update a previous courthouse repair proposal done before Hurricane Harvey hit, an estimated $95,000 for repairs necessary to prevent courthouse leaks and drainage overflows, and an estimated $20,000 to repair and replace courthouse structures damaged during Harvey.

Because the expenses are reimbursed, the county would have to pay the $10,000 for the architectural review up front. If the historical commission approves the grant, the money will be reimbursed. If the grant is denied, the $10,000 is not covered.

“As Judge (Tim) Lapham stated, even if that money is not reimbursed, we will have spent it on updating repair plans that can help guide the county in making future necessary courthouse repairs,” Robinson said after the meeting.

Built in the 1960s after the previous courthouse burned down, the courthouse sits in the middle of Highway 36 in downtown Bellville and has always been plagued by roof leaks and other problems.

“We had a real short deadline because they got the applications out at the very end of April and it was due Friday (May 24), so Judge Lapham and I signed the application but it’s pending by approval by the commissioners court to approve it,” Robinson told the commissioners.

She said that in order to qualify for the grant the courthouse would have to qualify to be on the national registry, not necessarily approved to be on the registry. Additionally, the Texas Historical Commission would have to be granted a 20-year easement.

“If we’re asking for over $100,000 in funds, we would have to give them a 20-year preservation easement for them to be able to come in and make sure the courthouse is being maintained,” she said.

Commissioner Randy Reichardt agreed to apply for the grant and the registry, but not before expressing his feelings about the building.

“My opinion is we should blow the place up and make a road through here,” he said. “When you have a courthouse in the middle of town, that’s wonderful, like most places do. But when you put it in the middle of the road…”

He is also leery of the building’s age and its long history of roof leaks and structural and mechanical problems.

“A whole other problem I have is this is older than the jail is – the jail that had all the mold in it – a lot of that was not just roof leaks, it was cast iron and this has all the same type of plumbing, this whole building, how many of those leaks do we have?” Reichardt said.

Despite his feelings about the 50-year-old building, he said he’d rather have the grant pay to fix it than local taxpayers.

“Half the people are going to tell you it’s a terrible eyesore and the other half is going to tell you it’s historical and we have to preserve it,” he said.

Many county services have already been moved out of the courthouse due to water damage from Harvey and the county is in the process of selecting a site for a new justice center that will eventually house many of the offices currently located in the courthouse.

“This is a last-hope grant where you’ve already tried to use whatever funds you could get out of insurance and FEMA and it wasn’t enough,” Robinson said. “This grant is supposed to come in and apply to those people like us.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to apply for the grant and a place on the national register.

Among other actions, the commissioners:

• Approved the sale of property on FM 1456;

• Approved a one-time variance from the subdivision regulations to divide one acre from 5.1 acres on Samuel Lane;

• Discussed a $23,707 bill from LKL/Travelers for work they did without a signed contract;

• Approved a bid to remove the old weigh station scale on Interstate 10; and

• Approved several items related to Hurricane Harvey assistance administered by the Texas General Land Office.

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