Commissioners Court will consider whether or not to approve a request for change order extending the start date of the Phase 1 courthouse restoration project 186 days to Aug. 20, 2011.
Officials with the Texas Historical Commission (THC) have said that if the county fails to move forward with the project, the county could lose the $617,000 state grant that was awarded in January of 2010 for the project.
A letter sent Monday from THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe to County Judge Barbara Shaw indicates THC’s frustration with the county’s lack of progress in moving forward with the project.
“For the last 9 months, our program staff and director have worked as diligently as possible to move this construction phase forward and attended numerous meetings with your commissioners and public citizens,” the letter states. “We have reassembled the architect, structural engineer and contractors of your project team to explain the methodology and numerous reasons the building requires immediate repair and removal of its unsympathetic additions.”
“We toured the Wharton County Courthouse, a very similar successful preservation project which received major funding from our program. Requests for information made by the county officials and interviews with interested parties have been fulfilled. Nonetheless, Karnes County has shown little interest in proceeding with the Phase 1 work.”
The letter goes on to say that program rules require a project to start within six months of the grant being awarded. It then requests the county to take action on the following by July 15 at 5 p.m.:
1. A request for project extension in writing along with revised schedule
2. Commissioners Court reaffirm its commitment to the project proceeding. Revisions to contract with contractor kept in full force and approved as change order #3 and any balance due for their additional administrative costs should be paid.
3. Actions that can be taken to implement portions of the project should be immediately directed by the county to be initiated by the contractor upon review of the architect.
“As we stated in a letter to county officials on May 5, if the county is not willing to proceed with the Phase 1, then please notify our office immediately,” the letter states. “We wish to present this situation to our commissioners at their July 28 quarterly meeting. You are welcome to attend. As stated in your grant project manual, failure to meet the terms of our agreement may result in forfeiture of your Round VI grant award.”
“Please be advised that the Preservation Easement granted to THC will remain in effect and that we expect the county to comply with all provisions of the easement including the requirement for on-going maintenance of the building to keep it in good repair.”
“We hope to continue an effective relationship that fosters the preservation of your historic courthouse but we cannot allow these funds to remain inactive with much needed preservation work remaining unfunded across the state.”
County Commissioner Carl Hummel, during an interview with The Karnes Countywide last week said he fully supports moving forward with the Phase 1 project.
When asked if he felt the county should move ahead with the Phase 1 courthouse restoration project, Hummel said, “Absolutely.”
“You would be a fool to throw away that kind of money,” Hummel said. “$617,000.”
Hummel said he is not ready to give back the $617,000 to the state of Texas and then be faced with repairing the building without grant assistance, especially considering THC has an easement that lasts for perpetuity.
The costs of pulling the plug on the project, will be far more than the cost of seeing the project through, Hummel said.
Hummel said that making matters even more complicated is the fact that some members of Commissioners Court are actively exploring the idea of building a new county jail.
If voter approval of a bond election for the purpose of building a new jail will be needed, then county officials need to understand that there may be very real consequences to killing courthouse restoration efforts, he explained.
“The people who want the courthouse restored with this grant -- they are not going to vote for that jail,” Hummel said. “If this court fights the people who support courthouse restoration and that doesn’t get done, then they are going to end up with a fight over the jail.”
“My thoughts are that we can do both,” Hummel said. “We obviously need both. If that happens, we won’t have a jail and we won’t have a restored courthouse and Barbara Shaw and her Commissioners Court will not be very popular.”
Commissioner James Rosales indicated his support for moving forward with the Phase 1 project during the June 14 meeting of Commissioners Court.
Rosales said that if expert engineers and architects agree that the building’s wings need to be removed to solve the building’s structural issues, then he is inclined to respect their professional opinions.
Rosales said that he was confident that a bond election would not jeopardize the Phase 1 grant project.
“If it would affect (the project) in any way?” Rosales said, “There is no way I am going to do anything to harm my county. That’s ridiculous. I am only going to do as much as I possibly can to try and help my county. I think that this will help the county. I’ve heard it from Stan (Graves) and I’ve heard it from my constituents.”
Commissioner Tracey Schendel, during an interview with The Karnes Countywide on June 24, indicated that he is still weighing all the county’s options in regard to plans involving the courthouse building.
“I don’t want to knock the courthouse down, but on the other hand I think it would be more economical and feasible for us if we moved to a different location and built a brand new facility for them, or whatever,” Schendel said. “I hate to say to knock the old building down because you can’t replace it, but I think it would be cheaper for us to build a replica, just like it.”
When asked if knocking the courthouse down and building a replica in its place was a workable option. considering the easement held by THC, Schendel said, “I don’t know for sure. I can’t say that.”
Schendel indicated that to build a replica, it may have to be done at a different site.
“I know we need a jailhouse worse than we need a courthouse,” Schendel said. “I am more in favor of building a jail than a courthouse, but I think we need to put a courthouse and a jailhouse together so we don’t have to carry the inmates back and forth from one place to another and waste money on fuel and transportation and labor.”
When asked what purpose the 1894 courthouse would serve if a new courthouse was constructed at a different site, Schendel offered a new idea.
“You tell me,” Schendel said, “I don’t know. It would be just a high dollar... I guess you could call it a museum. I guess that’s what it would be used for. From what I understand there would only be six people in the thing to begin with.”
Schendel indicated that he feels that now may be the time to come up with a new plan, but stopped short when asked directly if he was in favor of completing the Phase 1 project.
“I can’t comment on that right now,” Schendel said.
Commissioner Pete Jauer, during an interview with The Karnes Countywide on June 24, indicated that he disagrees with the engineers and architects involved with the Phase 1 plan about the necessity of removing the wings that were added to the building in 1924.
“No,” Jauer said when asked if he thought the county should move forward with the Phase 1 project. “I am not ready to move forward with it because it doesn’t make sense to me to tear off 4,400 square-feet of the better part of the building.”
Jauer said that he went to a meeting with the structural engineer and architect in April and he asked the structural engineer why the wings needed to come off.
“He hesitated and he said, ‘Well, we were directed that the historical commission could provide more money if it went back to 1896,’” Jauer said.
“I asked him if it could be fixed,” Jauer said, “and he said, ‘I think it could.’”
“He didn’t say emphatically that it was a structural thing, he didn’t say that it wasn’t, he said, ‘I think it could be fixed.’ That was his main answer that struck me was that he said, ‘We were directed that they could get lots more money if they went back to 1896,’ because that’s what the historical commission likes to see.”
“To me, that wing is just as historical as the rest of the building,” Jauer said. “That’s all I’ve seen all my life and what most people have seen. That’s just as historical to me, so why is it less historical than the rest of the building?”
The Karnes Countywide tried to reach County Judge Barbara Shaw for comment on this story last week but messages left with her office were not returned.