EDINBURG — State Rep. Terry Canales fired off a laundry list of questions Tuesday to Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia about the construction of the new courthouse, and Garcia fired back with his own response Wednesday.
Canales, whose district includes much of Edinburg and the area where the current courthouse sits, is the latest elected official to join the conversation about the proposed courthouse.
The state lawmaker’s letter to Garcia included over a dozen questions ranging from funding to infrastructure, and even asked about other options for the facility, including a change of location.
Canales also sent the two-page document to county commissioners, the Hidalgo County Board of Judges, Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina and Gilbert Enriquez, an Edinburg council member and president of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.
“There is little doubt that our current courthouse is not adequate for the actual needs of this community, yet I believe we need to work together to clarify misconceptions that seem to be circulating around the area,” Canales wrote. “I have a series of questions that I have been asked by Hidalgo County residents that I would like answered in writing to help my constituents and myself become more comfortable with this project.”
Canales said he wants to make sure the people of Hidalgo County get the most out of their tax dollars, that the process is transparent and that residents’ questions are answered.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask,” he said Wednesday.
In his two-page response, Garcia pointed out that many of the questions Canales posed have been researched over the course of four years and have been addressed multiple times during various meetings with community members, elected officials and stakeholders.
“Nonetheless, my office is grateful for the opportunity to directly answer your questions, as the local representative of District 40,” Garcia wrote. “However, so there is no confusion, please be advised that this is the first time you or your office have requested information and/or questions regarding the courthouse project, submitted to either myself or my staff.”
Canales’ first set of questions revolved around the economic impact the facility would have and whether a study had been commissioned.
Garcia pointed to a March 2016 economic impact study conducted by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley which estimated the project would result in $239 million in monetary output, a total value added of $97 million and a total tax revenue impact of over $7 million per year. In addition, it would create 1,020 temporary jobs during construction and $59 million in labor income.
Canales also inquired about SB 1964, a bill that passed the state legislature in 2015 that allowed Hidalgo County to collect a court filing fee of $20 to be used for the construction or renovation of the county courthouse.
Garcia said about $2.2 million has already been collected and is available to offset the cost to taxpayers, along with $20 million from the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization and a $30 million commitment from Edinburg to fund the project.
Edinburg’s commitment, however, has not been formally executed.
“We also have the financial structure of the county in such a way that we’ll be able to construct this new facility without requiring a tax rate increase,” the county judge told The Monitor.
The county previously entered into several tax abatement agreements with various developers and entities — many of them in Edinburg — that will bear fruit “in the next eight to 10 years,” he said. Those abatements will expire and create a new source of revenue for the county.
Perhaps one of Canales’ main concerns revolved around the number of courtrooms the new facility would house after the state said the county needed six more courts — two-and-a-half district courts and three county courts-at-law.
“We may be building a courthouse that is already at a structural deficit in that it doesn’t have enough courtrooms,” he said. “If you look at our current courthouse, we literally have a trailer housed outside. Is that what we’re going to do when we have the new courthouse? Are we just going to pull up a trailer next to it?”
Garcia, however, said the new facility, which will be seven stories tall, will house 24 occupied courts, six empty courts and will have the ability and space to add four more.
“I don’t think he’s well informed,” Garcia said about Canales. “He’s never bothered to call and ask us to make a presentation for him and his staff, so I’m not really sure where he’s getting his information from.”
In his letter, Canales asked if other options had been explored and if the county had researched other projects of similar size.
Garcia had a response for that, too.
“First and foremost, let me be clear. Based on all relevant information, no savings are to be found in the relocation of the courthouse outside of the town square,” he wrote, adding that an analysis by the architect during the master planning phase also determined the cost of the project would increase by approximately $54 million should the courthouse be relocated.
The county also reviewed numerous contracts and plans for courthouses built throughout the nation prior to selecting and approving a project manager, Garcia said. Furthermore, the project manager and architect have also provided additional courthouse contracts and plans based on their experiences.
“I’m not against building the courthouse in the downtown square,” Canales said. “I just want to make sure that we’re as prudent as possible with our tax payer’s dollars.”