Residents speak in favor of courthouse restoration
by Joe Baker
May 19, 2011 | 2238 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A group of Karnes County Courthouse preservation supporters gathers on the front steps of the courthouse on May 9 holding a sign reading “This place matters.” The gathering was for an entry in a Preservation Texas contest in celebration of May as Preservation Month.
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Cancellation of the Phase 1 Karnes County Courthouse restoration project contract once again appeared on the agenda of Commissioners Court and a large group of Karnes County residents showed up to voice support for moving forward with the project.

Thirteen people spoke against the cancellation of the contract and one person spoke in favor of cancelling the contract during the meeting on Tuesday, May 10 at the Karnes County Juvenile Probation building.

Before hearing any comments one way or the other County Judge Barbara Shaw made a motion to adjourn into closed session for the purpose of consultation with an attorney representing Commissioners Court. The court voted to adjourn and returned to open session after about 45 minutes.

Richard Butler was first to speak.

“The courthouse is a symbol and it is a symptom of the county,” Butler said. “What does that county think of itself? What does that county -- how much pride do they take and how much care do they take of their public facilities. This courthouse of course does not belong to any individual it belongs to the people of all of Karnes County.”

“I hope that Commissioners Court will take great care in not jeopardizing the repair and restoration of this courthouse,” Butler said. “I have seen a lot of courthouses that have been properly restored and properly cared for and it does a great deal for that community. It speaks volumes about who the people are and it speaks volumes about what they think of their public facilities, their schools and all other aspects of their community.”

Lajuana Kasprzyk was next to speak on behalf of Stella Saxon who could not attend the meeting.

“She (Saxon) wants to make it clear that everyone is here for the purpose of fiscal responsibility and that we don’t overspend what we can afford.”

“Is it fiscally responsible to throw away the monies that we have received from the grant for the courthouse and then to add to the cost by buying out a contract of a contractor that is already under contract? Kasprzyk asked. “There have been a lot of county monies spent over probably the last 15 or 16 years to get to this point -- do we throw it all away?”

“She suggests why not postpone the potential cancellation of the contract to see what the state does, as far as the budget this year with the courthouse restoration dollars,” Kasprzyk said. “The senate version as proposed and approved this past weekend contains 20 plus million dollars for courthouse restoration. The house bill contains a little over $400,000. So we know probably that there is going to be some mediation and some compromise there. Nobody knows what Karnes might be awarded or anything else but she said in the manner of fiscal responsibility, why add to what we have paid for by cancelling out this contract.”

Sandra Carter was next to speak and expressed agreement with Saxon’s remarks in regard to fiscal responsibility.

“To default on this contract or to cancel it will just say that our county just really hasn’t got any integrity left,” Carter said. “This has been worked on since the end of the 90s. A lot of people have done things. There have been people that have sat in these chairs before y’all that have done all this work and the State of Texas has been looking at our county and they have made us some promises -- we have one grant already and we may end up getting another one. I just think that the work and the integrity that went into all of this is something to really really consider.”

Truett Lee Hunt was next to speak on the topic on behalf of the Karnes County Historical Commission.

“I just want you to know that it is just absolutely wrong to even think about cancelling the contract with M. J. Boyle,” Hunt said. “That will jeopardize the money that has already been awarded regardless of what the legislature does -- to complete Phase I of the courthouse. If we continue as we have planned with Phase I, II and III, the state will eventually pay for almost two thirds of the restoration. If we back out of this first phase, Karnes County will never get another grant from the state again, for anything.”

Maggie Hunt was next to address the issue, outlining the work that was done in past years toward the effort of repairing and restoring the Karnes County Courthouse.

“A grant was awarded last year from the State of Texas,” Hunt said. “The county entered a legal contract with the intent of following through. It is our wish for this administration to continue with full faith. To default will lead the county into horrific ramifications for decades. We would not recover during the remaining three years and seven months of your leadership. It will be tagged as your legacy in state and local history.”

Barbara May Welder was next to speak and read a sentence to the county officials quoting from the wording in the formal agreement between Karnes County and the State of Texas.

“The state archaeological landmark designation, which is on the Karnes County courthouse, stipulates that the property can not be removed, altered, damaged, salvaged or excavated without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission -- that is the State of Texas,” Welder said. “So if this were to be suspended, Karnes County can not drive one single nail into that courthouse without the permission of the State of Texas. I want you to keep that in mind as you are toying with this ludicrous idea.”

Trip Ruckman was next in line to speak to Commissioners Court on the topic.

“I am urging you not to cancel the contract with M. J. Boyle for the restoration of the Karnes County courthouse,” Ruckman said. “Karnes County’s future has never been brighter.”

Ruckman recapped an auditor’s report from earlier in the meeting that announced a $1.1 million increase in sales tax from oil and gas revenues.

“I plead with the court not to reject these funds,” Ruckman said. “It would be a very bad reflection on the county at the state level.”

“Please don’t let the legacy of this court be the destruction of a true Karnes County landmark,” Ruckman concluded.

Robert Thonhoff was next to speak and said he was speaking on behalf of those who could not be there to speak.

“This goes back to the years of the founding of Karnes County in 1854, 157 years ago, some six or seven generations past,” Thonhoff said. “There have been many, many people who have put their hearts and souls and lives into Karnes County and all that it stands for.”

Thonhoff reminded the court of the sacrifices made by the founders of Karnes County to get the original courthouse in Helena built, and then also the sacrifices needed for the construction of the courthouse in Karnes City after the courthouse was relocated.

“These people put their lives into it and we urge the Commissioners Court to go ahead and follow through with the work that has been done,” Thonhoff said.

Connie Barnes-Rose spoke to the court in favor of restoration.

Barnes-Rose said that health concerns were cited as the reasons for evacuating the courthouse third floor because of bat guano, but according to information presented by Barnes-Rose, exposure to raw sewage was a much greater health threat than bat guano and no evacuation took place when those issues emerged.

“What we need to do is protect our citizens and the only way to protect our citizens in that building is to go ahead and restore that building to what it needs to be,” Barnes-Rose said.

Betty Yarter was next to speak in favor of canceling the Phase I Restoration Project contract.

“Basically my position is pretty well known in terms of being against things that are going to put the county into a more fiscally unsound position,” Yarter said. “I would go along with what Judge Saxon said today. Look at the fiscal responsibility that you have and I would also like to say that I support the commissioners getting out of the contract with M. J. Boyle.”

Sherry Sommer was next to speak and spoke the cancellation of the contract.

“This Commissioners Court is bound by the decisions of their predecessors,” Sommer said. “I ask that each commissioner and our county judge take action not just because they don’t understand or they disagree with the process or plan that is in place, but that their decision is made through researching and looking at the plan in great detail that began some 12 plus years ago when previous leaders and citizens began the quest to secure funds for stabilizing and restoring a deteriorating courthouse.”

Sue Butler Carter was next to speak in regard to the idea of a bond election to raise funding for restoration without grant assistance.

“It is very likely that we will receive the grant for $5.3 million,” Carter said. “Why would we consider cancelling it, when we have this $5.3 million that is about a step or two ahead of us? Let’s wait and see if this grant comes to it and if it does, we will all celebrate and move forward, but if it doesn’t, we have a much better courthouse to work on and restore for only $3 million.”

Sean O’Brien spoke next to Commissioners Court about the importance of legacy and integrity.

“As a community, Karnes County has always been a ‘can do’ place,” O’Brien said. “I know that I have only been here 20 years, but from what I have seen -- with the people -- that’s why it has been such a success. Even though we have been a lower income county, we have always gotten things done because people buckled down and did it. We have a ‘can do’ attitude and I know we can do this. It is just a matter of making it work.”

“Let’s get this done,” O’Brien concluded.

Brian Crews was next to speak against cancellation of the contract.

Crews said that his family was trying to figure out a way to contribute something to the county on behalf of their family.

“God willing, we will be paying a lot of taxes to the county from the Eagle Ford Shale,” Crews said.

Crews said his family is now having doubts about making a contribution in light of the court’s consideration of canceling the contract.

“I know you are in a bad spot but I think things can be great for this county and we are ready to help,” Crews said. “To help you meet your goal, which should be the same as ours.”

Commissioner Pete Jauer, who put the item on the agenda, said that he did not agree with the plan that calls for removal of the wings and there were other aspects of the plan he also did not agree with.

“Why tear off the best part of the building, to save the worst part?” Jauer asked.

Jauer said that THC indicated that they were reluctant to agree to significant changes from the current restoration plans.

County Judge Barbara Shaw said she believed that there were three options: Termination of the contract, suspension of the contract, or to do nothing in light of bills from the contractor related to delays in the originally agreed upon start date.

As discussed in previous meetings, the Phase I Restoration project can not begin until the construction of the new annex building is complete and the courthouse is vacated. Because of these delays, the county is incurring expenses in the form of bills from M. J. Boyle, the contractor for the project.

“It’s not our fault that this isn’t going forward,” Shaw said.

Jauer said that a construction worker at the site of the new county annex building thought that the building would be finished around August 1.

Ross Fisher, an attorney advising the court in this matter, said the county would likely have to pay penalties as a result of the termination. The penalties would amount to profit, overhead and any work performed. Suspending the contract would mean that the county would still likely pay profit, overhead and work performed but the contractor would he asked to wait for payment until the contract is restarted, he said.

Shaw asked what would happen in regard to county’s agreement with the Texas Historical Commission if the contract were terminated.

“The language of the easement with the historical commission says that if the county chooses not to participate in the project before it receives any reimbursement for state funds, then the easement terminates on its own,” Fisher said.

Commissioner Carl Hummel asked about legal fees related to termination of the project contract.

“We won’t be looking at any attorney’s fees?” Hummel asked.

“Not unless somebody sues you,” Fisher said.

“What about all the money we’ve spent over the past 12 years?” Hummel asked.

“Those are different contracts, Carl,” County Attorney Robert Busselman said.

“That is still a cost,” Hummel said.

Hummel asked why these bills haven’t been submitted for reimbursement as part of the grant funding.

“That’s one of the big things,” Shaw said. “We don’t know where we are going.”

Shaw said that if the court chooses to do nothing, someone needs to negotiate with the contractor and THC to try to reach an agreement with new timelines.

Commissioner Jauer said the county should negotiate with the contractor and THC to hopefully reach an agreement that gives the county some leeway.

Commissioner James Rosales said the best thing would be to take no action on the item at this time and work with the contractor and THC to reach an agreement.

Commissioner Tracey Schendel agreed with Rosales.

“That’s what we discussed earlier,” Schendel said.

“The historical commission and M. J. Boyle would both have to make some adjustments, because we are not eating everything,” Shaw said related to expenses incurred as a result of project delays.

The court took no action on the agenda item, but agreed to have Commissioner Jauer enter into negotiations with the contractor and THC to reach a mutually agreeable solution.

The court rejected moving forward on a bond election related to funding the courthouse restoration on a 2-3 vote.

Later in the meeting County Judge Barbara Shaw and County Commissioner Pete Jauer voted in favor with moving forward toward calling the courthouse bond election, but Commissioners Hummel, Rosales and Schendel voted against, defeating the motion.

See more on this part of the Commissioners Court meeting as well as other topics discussed and acted upon in next week’s newspaper.

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