Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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November 26, 2012

County tables courthouse restoration action

Corsicana — Several action items on the Navarro County Commissioners Court agenda Monday, all part of moving the proposed restoration of the Navarro County Courthouse forward, were tabled by commissioners Monday after a lengthy discussion of the projects costs and how the county would fund its share of the project.

One citizen — Bobby Vickery of Frost — also brought up a possible public vote on going forward with the $9.7 million restoration project, which would include about $4.5 million in state money. The county is looking at approximately $11 million in all for the project — less the $4.5 million in state money — and including temporary relocation during any restoration work.

The state grant could go away, if commissioners don’t act on an agreement with the Texas Historic Commission — also tabled Monday.

“In essence we're no farther along than we were several months ago,” said H.M. Davenport Jr., County Judge, commenting on the status of the restoration.

The question of a public referendum on the county issuing certificates of obligation to fund its share of the project came up during the public comment section of the meeting, when Vickery questioned how the county would be able to pay for its share of the restoration, along with the costs of temporarily re-locating the courthouse during the approximate 30-month project.

“I would like to see the courthouse renovated if we can afford it, but I think the voters should have a say in it,” he told commissioners.

Noting that elections can only be held in May or November, Davenport said the county didn’t have time to wait for a May election.

“We need to make sure,” Vickery said. “If we have to get a petition together I guess that’s what we’ll need to do.”

A petition signed by five percent of registered voters could trigger the referendum, but it would have to be on the question of whether or not the county could issue certificates of obligation for the project — and that can’t be done until final numbers are known and bids received for the work — all work that remains to be done going forward.

Susan Gammage of the Texas Historic Commission reminded commissioners they had to act within six months of accepting the grant — which occurred in July 2012 — by signing the funding agreement and beginning to move forward with the project, or risk losing the funding. She said the commission could vote in January of 2013 to rescind the grant award if the county hasn’t taken action.

Asked by Davenport what might happen if the county did proceed, then faced a referendum vote in May, Gammage said “That is unknown.”

“The petition can’t be submitted until after the certificates of obligation have been advertised,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Dick Martin. “I don’t know how (the funding) can be taken away if we’ve signed the agreement.”

“If the citizens voted against the certificates of obligation, you’d have to find other means of funding,” Gammage replied.

“That’s ‘new territory’ for the THC,” said Karalei Nunn of 1113 Architects, designers of the project. “If you move forward, the THC knows you are moving forward. If you stop, they could rescind it.”

Martin said the county had gotten different opinions from advisors it had heard from as to whether or not some of the costs of project — specifically the costs of temporarily relocating and improvements of a rental facility, plus the cost of rent — could be funded by the certificates of obligation. Some advisors have said yes, some no.

County Auditor Kathy Hollomon said her reading of the statutes, and her research, has indicated the county would have to fund those items out of the county budget — one that at this point does not have those items included through September 2013.

“This is something I’ve had an issue with from the onset,” Hollomon said. “We would have the move and its expenses, and we would not have any legal authority to pay if we can’t pay through certificates and they weren’t budgeted.” Hollomon said she doubted the expenses could be added to the budget through an “emergency” amendment.

“It’s my job as your auditor to advise you I don’t think it’s wise to fund operating-type expenditures with borrowed funds,” she said. “That’s the issue — it’s not the restoration, it’s all the other costs the county will have to incur.”

Pct. 4 Commissioner James Olsen agreed that more information and specific dollar figures are needed, and agreed with the idea of a public vote.

“With that much money, I think they should,” he said. “Once we know how much, can we afford it?”

Davenport said there has been support voiced for the project, and he expected financial support from public and private entities once the project moved forward.

“They want to get behind this project, but we’ve got to say ‘yes, we’re going to do it,’” Davenport said.

Rice Mayor Larry Bailey agreed.

“I think the public is waiting on you to make a decision,” he said. “We’re two years down the road and we’re no farther along. People are ready to donate money, they are just waiting for you.”

“We’ve got to know for sure if we can afford this,” said Olsen. “We need to know if we’re OK.”

Navarro County District Attorney R. Lowell Thompson advised the commissioners to consider future growth when making final decisions on space in the courthouse, and the possible need for an annex to house some courthouse offices after the renovation.

“Three years from now, probation will need more officers, the clerks will probably need more clerks, and I need to add more attorneys,” he said. “You know there is going to be a need for more space, and it doesn’t look like we’re planning very well.”

Commissioners are expected to call the special meeting to discuss hiring a financial advisor later this week. Those talks will likely be in closed, executive session, although any action will have to be taken in open session.

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