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County studies courthouse options

July 8, 2018 GMT

Ector County commissioners look to hire an architecture firm to come up with conceptual designs of a new courthouse to be built either downtown or on land the county owns by the jail if support officials are seeking from the city doesn’t materialize.

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on a $40,000 contract with the firm, HOK, on Monday. The county has sought help from the city in replacing the blighted building, but since officials with both entities formed a committee to explore options in April there has been little headway.

That is in part because of the resignation of former County Judge Ron Eckert last month and the appointment of his successor, Debi Hays.

Hays said she still hopes the city will end up contributing toward parking, properties or demolition needed to accommodate the new courthouse, hoping to keep the facility downtown. But the county should consider other options if the city decides otherwise, she said.

“We still have to move forward,” Hays said, expecting the design work to take about three months. “…We’re just looking at all our options, because we want to do what is most beneficial for the county for the least amount of money.”

County officials say keeping the courthouse downtown would require city help because of its greater cost. The city also owns the Odessa American building at 222 E. Fourth St., buying the property long eyed as a site of a future courthouse in 2016 for about $2.6 million, along with a nearby parking lot.

City officials see building a new courthouse downtown as advancing goals of redeveloping the area, an effort that includes the city’s multimillion dollar investment in a downtown hotel and conference center being built today.

“Most of the courthouses are the center-point of the city, so in my mind I think it’s important that it be downtown,” District 2 City Councilman Dewey Bryant said.

Bryant is one of the elected officials on the courthouse committee. He said he expects the officials in the coming weeks to delve into details such as costs and what the city would consider contributing.

The officials are unlikely to pursue a more costly and complicated joint facility that was discussed early on, Hays and Bryant said. The city recently approved $3.3 million worth of repairs to city buildings.

“That’s a whole lot less expensive,” Bryant said. “The county has a bigger need. It needs a quick answer.”

Hays had said the county needs to do more to understand the cost of replacing the courthouse before moving to take on debt. She said the county needs to update the 2013 courthouse feasibility study commissioned before a $95 million bond election that voters overwhelmingly rejected.

The new design study will be part of that effort, Hays said. The architecture firm is expected to propose options showing the needed footprint and estimated cost of a new courthouse.

Eckert had used that study to come up with the $85 million debt figure and said the savings reflected the city’s participation.

Hays has also said she expects to meet with private developers about possibly investing in the courthouse.

No decision about the courthouse appears likely in the short term. City and county officials are both preparing budgets for fiscal years beginning Oct. 1. But officials of both governments say the courthouse is unlikely to figure in.

In the meantime, Hays said it’s important the county and city work out options because any courthouse decision would play into the city’s public investment in the area.

“Wherever the courthouse ends up being built, it affects their whole master plan as well,” Hays said.