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Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

Featured, from left: Precinct 1 Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar, Jr. of Weslaco; Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García; Mayor Richard García; Councilmember J.R. Betancourt; and Mayor Pro Tem Richard Molina. This image was taken on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 in the Council Chamber of Edinburg City Hall.

Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

The Mayor and Edinburg City Council on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, gave their initial approval to provide a maximum of $30 million – to be spread out over up to 30 years and without raising the city property tax rate – to help in the construction of a $150 million Hidalgo County Courthouse, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced. If all goes as planned by the county, construction on the courthouse may begin near the end of this year, if weather permits. The county anticipates a completion date of October 2018. The action took place following a 2 p.m. joint work session with the Hidalgo County Judge and Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, held in the Council Chamber of Edinburg City Hall, and sets into motion a plan that will eventually lead to the construction of a state-of-the-art judicial center, which will be located in downtown Edinburg, next to the current county courthouse complex.

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Edinburg gives initial approval to provide a maximum of $30 million – to be spread out over up to 30 years without raising city property tax rate – to help in the construction of $150 million Hidalgo County Courthouse

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

The Mayor and Edinburg City Council on Tuesday, March 8, 2016, gave their initial approval to provide a maximum of $30 million – to be spread out over up to 30 years and without raising the city property tax rate – to help in the construction of a $150 million Hidalgo County Courthouse, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

The EEDC, of which Agustín García, Jr. is Executive Director, is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg Mayor and Edinburg City Council.

The EEDC Board of Directors is comprised of Mark Iglesias as President, Harvey Rodríguez as Vice President, Ellie M. Torres as Secretary/Treasurer, and Mayor Richard García and Richard Ruppert as Members.

The mayor and the EEDC executive director are not related.

If all goes as planned by the county, construction on the courthouse may begin near the end of this year, if weather permits. The county anticipates a completion date of October 2018.

The action took place following a 2 p.m. joint work session with the Hidalgo County Judge and Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, held in the Council Chamber of Edinburg City Hall, and sets into motion a plan that will eventually lead to the construction of a state-of-the-art judicial center, which will be located in downtown Edinburg, next to the current county courthouse complex.

The Edinburg City Council unanimously adopted a motion to enter a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hidalgo County for the construction of a courthouse.

Following the decision, Mayor Richard García congratulated County Judge Ramón García (no relation) and the county staff for pursuing a new facility to be built on the existing courthouse square in downtown Edinburg.

“We’re changing the face of the city gradually over the last 10 years,” the mayor said in comments to local media after the meeting. “We’ve come from a small, sleepy town that looked like it did in the 1950s to what it is today, a modern, thriving city.”

Pending certain changes to the MOU, an interlocal agreement outlining additional specifics is expected to follow.

In general, an interlocal agreement is a collaborative contract between governments, such as Edinburg and Hidalgo County, aiming to provide more efficient, less costly public services.

The MOU caps the city’s contribution at $30 million, or a contribution of at least 20 percent of the cost for the estimated $150 million project should the total cost be reduced, the mayor emphasized.

Before calling for the city council’s vote on the matter, Mayor Richard García also reflected on the chain of events that continue to transform Edinburg and Hidalgo County into one of the leading metropolitan areas in Texas.

“We are seeing major changes in our city and the county. I know that in Edinburg we have strived to upgrade from the 1950’s – all of the basics in our city, facilities, services, etc.,” the mayor said. “We have this one last building here in the city, which opened and began operations in 1954, and I certainly think it’s time, not just because the time that has passed, but for the needs of the county.”

Mayor Richard García turned to the county judge and asked for his perspectives on this latest major development regarding efforts to build a new county courthouse.

“In our purpose of the meeting here today, as you can imagine it’s a substantial project. We are trying to do it with the cooperation of the city, which are very appreciative. We expect it to be a win-win type of project for both the city and county,” County Judge Ramón García explained. “But because of all the different legal issues that are involved and the financing issues that are involved and that needed to be clarified, that was something we have done as a result of this meeting.”

Hidalgo County’s partnership with the City of Edinburg continues to move forward “with the understanding that there will be a further interlocal agreement prepared by the various legal departments, the city and the county, and the different lawyers that we have hired,” Judge Ramón García continued. “At that time, the specifics will be reduced to writing in the interlocal, and we will be executing. Today, I will entertain a motion to proceed to the next step and approve this Memorandum of Understanding.”

The county judge’s motion carried unanimously, with two county commissioners – Precinct 2 Hidalgo County Commissioner Eduardo “Eddie” Cantú of Pharr and Precinct 4 Hidalgo County Commissioner Joe Flores of Mission – excused from the meeting for other important business.

Mayor Richard García noted that the City of Edinburg is financially stable enough to contribute to this project with no tax rate increase for residents. The city has not increased the property tax rate in 21 years.

The mayor envisions the new Hidalgo County Courthouse as “another piece of the overall picture when it comes to the revitalization of downtown Edinburg, flowing with the city’s cultural corridor on McIntyre Street and the growth of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

“It will create additional green space in Edinburg and is expected to spur more economic development in the community, building upon the momentum of existing projects such as Edinburg’s new soccer stadium and the new Bert Ogden Arena,” he said.

The mayor said the interlocal agreement to follow will address the specifics of infrastructure issues related to the project such as water lines, drainage and traffic signals.

HIGHLIGHTS OF MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA’S COMMENTS TO REPORTERS

Following the conclusion of the work session, the mayor spoke with reporters.

The key issues raised and his perspectives follow:

QUESTION:

Mayor, so there was no signing of the MOU today?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

We basically passed a motion where we agreed on the Memorandum of Understanding. It needs to be properly prepared, and part of the understanding is that there are still details to work out on an interlocal agreement and fine-tune it. We both passed a motion to pass the MOU agreement. It’s just formalities that are left, but we basically both approved the MOU as was generally agreed to.

QUESTION:

What kind of things still need to be fine-tuned?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

For example, there are infrastructure costs, drainage, signaling, the closing of Closner/U.S. Business 281 that goes right through the middle of the courthouse property that is going to be closed off.

These are the little details that we need to work out – which part belongs to the city, and which part belongs to the county – as far as expenditures, and where it’s going to come from.

These are the details that we pretty much discussed and came to an agreement on. I don’t know if there is anything we haven’t come to an agreement on, but these are going to be reduced to writing so we can sign a proper document.

QUESTION:

I heard something about an interlocal agreement. Is that going to be a separate document?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

The interlocal is really what we are taking about as far as the contract itself. We had an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) where we are agreeing to the interlocal. We have to pass that as soon as the details are listed as we work them out. We had meetings with our lawyers and our financial advisors right now in executive session, and my understanding is we came to an agreement on everything.

QUESTION:

What are the next steps?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

Basically, step one means you can’t put the cart before the horse.

It means working out details on infrastructure.

There is drainage. We have a new holding pond area to the west of the city that used to drain to the east. I think once these issues are resolved, all of the downtown flooding will be resolved, which will be a necessity for the new courthouse.

The other thing is that there will be twice the water needs. The water lines will have to be increased in size.

The direction signals will have to be replaced because we are not going to have all these intersections with two-way traffic. We are going to have a circular movement around the courthouse, and TXDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) already has requirements in connection with that signaling, including synchronization.

We have two major arteries including U.S. Business 281 and State Highway 107 that intersect on that square. These are things that TXDOT is going to be involved in, and these are things that are going to cost money.

QUESTION:

These are some of the issues that are being ironed out?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

Exactly – whose cost is what, and we have already agreed to who pays for what. It’s called onsite and offsite expenditures. Basically, offsite will be the city’s cost. Any onsite will be part of the construction cost.

QUESTION:

Is there anything about date set to reconvene? Is that still up in the air?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

Pretty much. I’m guessing that the entire process – and again this is a guesstimating – I’m guessing the entire process regarding TXDOT’s involvement, and the engineers telling us the exact cost and requirements for drainage, etc. may be a process that takes anywhere from two to four months.

QUESTION:

Is that going to cause any delays?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

I think we were looking at hopefully being in a position to start construction towards the end of the year. We are now in the first part of March, so we have plenty of time to meet the projected dates and times.

QUESTION:

So in no way is the city backing down?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

No, not at all. We are still happy and holding hands and anxious to move forward.

QUESTION:

I know there was a redesign of the schematic for which the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation paid. How much did that cost?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

I don’t have the exact figure, but it was something that – we have a master design, a master plan that involves architectural standards and a flow with our new cultural corridor, and tying into the new university. There was a redesign to meet the needs for green space and, as far as architectural standards, colors and fitting in with the general theme of the city. The EEDC did pay for that at no cost to the county because it was something that would benefit our master plan.

QUESTION:

And a raise in taxes for Edinburg taxpayers?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

Absolutely not going to happen. That’s why it has taken so long. It was getting our financial advisors to figure all this out for us and get it done without raising taxes.

QUESTION:

What does this mean for the community and quality of life?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

First of all, it means better service and a better environment for the employees, which is a large number of people. The county employs, depending on whose numbers you believe, anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 people.

The employees are bunched up, that’s going to be resolved. At any rate, this is going to be a great benefit.

For the city, we are changing the face of the city. Gradually over the last 10 years, we have gone from a small sleepy town that was still in the 1950s to what it is today. We are a modern and vibrant city.

With all the new projects that are under construction now, the soccer stadium and Bert Ogden Arena, etc., we are the new destination city and it will look like it.

QUESTION:

Finally, the $30 million the city agreed to, will that be paid in one lump sum or over a number of years?

MAYOR RICHARD GARCÍA:

That will be paid out yearly.

There is a $30 million cap regardless of what the county may end up paying, our commitment is $30 million.

The other thing is, the funding will be for 30 years. This is taken into account, flat-lining growth. We deal on a conservative basis.

For example, when did a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for the Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley, it was paid early because we are not flat-lining. We are growing, our tax base grows, and we expect to be taking care of this growth within 20 years as opposed to 30 years, and save ourselves a lot of interest costs.

COURTHOUSE COMPLEX DESIGNED AROUND CITY DOWNTOWN MASTER PLAN

The new courthouse complex is designed around the goals of the Downtown Master Plan of the City of Edinburg, a vision approved by the city leadership and the EEDC Board of Directors in 2010 to promote business development, cultural activities, transportation, and tourism for that portion of the city.

“The idea is to develop a downtown where people just don’t park, go on to the courthouse, then leave,” said Eli Ochoa, P.E., AIA, a structural engineer and architect who is founder and general partner for ERO Architects. “The idea is to have people walk through downtown to be able to get to the courthouse, thereby creating more of a vibrancy for retail and commercial development, and really help the downtown area of Edinburg.”

Sonia Marroquín, the city’s Assistant City Manager, provided an executive summary to the mayor and city council in advance of the Tuesday, March 8 work session.

In addition to the key points highlighted by Marroquín in her executive summary of the proposed memorandum of understanding, that document also provided some historical perspectives on key issues prompting the need for the new courthouse.

“Originally constructed in 1954, the existing courthouse accommodated five courts that served a small rural community which a population of 168,000,” the memorandum of understanding states. “Today, Hidalgo County has 24 courts with a (county) population nearing 900,000. The increase of over 475 percent in number of courtrooms requires county and city leaders to address the need for a new courthouse that can accommodate all of the current county courts, while considering (Edinburg’s) continuing growth and the changing landscape that has become known as downtown Edinburg.”

ERO Architects, on its web page which features its many other major projects, provides the following description of the planned courthouse complex:

“The new facility will remain on the same existing property and provide increased governmental services in an accessible, highly-secure, 21st century judicial facility. The six-story courthouse features a glass facade on the north providing an abundance of natural light and views while maintaining energy efficiency. The design and floor plans incorporate critical security measures by the separation of defendants-in-custody from the public and staff to ensure safety. The lower two floors provide high volume court services such as the county clerk, district clerk, jury assembly and grand jury rooms. The courtrooms are provided in a six-courtroom per floor set located on the upper floors.”

ERO Architects is also responsible for developing a comprehensive history of the courthouses of Hidalgo County. That information is available online at:

http://agenda.hidalgocounty.us/docs/2013/CC/20130319_2011/37714_AI%2037714%20-%20Historical%20Plan.pdf

HISTORIC HIDALGO COUNTY COURTHOUSE

The executive summary of that report, titled Historic Hidalgo County Courthouse, and published in May 2012, follows:

When the historic courthouse opened in 1954, it was the pride of the county. A grand building in the latest architectural style, 70,000 square feet in area, it held all the branches of county government under one roof. By 1977 though, the county population had increased by fifty percent, and many departments had been moved to annex sites.

The courthouse was in need of repairs, and planning for expansion and improvements began. In 1980, the building was enlarged substantially to 93,000 square feet and seven courtrooms were added. As the courthouse passed the 50-year mark in 2004, the county population had increased over four-fold, and more remodeling was done to insert new courtrooms into the crowded building. The county’s growth has continued, with a population now almost five times that of 1950.

Many legal, administrative and general government functions once located in the historic courthouse are now in off-site facilities, but the infill construction and sometimes unsympathetic modifications remain.

The current long-range master planning effort for the Hidalgo County Courthouse is an opportunity to set new preservation goals for the historic courthouse, and make it the pride of the county once again.

This study of the Historic Hidalgo County Courthouse is a component of the Hidalgo County Courthouse Master Plan, prepared by ERO Architects for Hidalgo County. The study is an abbreviated historic structures report and preservation master plan, and includes information on the history of the courthouse, an overview of existing conditions and broad recommendations for preservation treatment of the building.

The study is intended to identify opportunities for preservation and restoration of significant elements and spaces remaining in the Historic Hidalgo County Courthouse. The information will inform the planning team, as recommendations for the future use and preservation of the historic courthouse are formulated.

Partial construction drawings for the original 1954 construction phase and subsequent major additions and renovations, completed in 1980 and 2006, were provided by Travis County (through ERO Architects) for use in this study. The construction specifications were not located, and the drawings of earlier courthouses were also not located, and may not exist.

Historic photographs of the original construction work, the completed building exterior and interior, and later additions and renovations were located in the Museum of South Texas History photo archives.

Photographs of earlier county courthouses were located in the holdings of the Texas Department of Transportation photo archives, the University of Texas-Pan American Library, the Museum of South Texas History and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

The office staff of the Hidalgo County Clerk provided frequent access to Commissioners Court minutes for information relating to the development and maintenance of the courthouse. The minutes were searched for references to the courthouse, including the site, construction, furniture, furnishings, maintenance, alterations and improvements. (A synopsis of the relevant minutes is included in the appendix.)

Additional research was conducted at the Museum of South Texas History, University of Texas-Pan American Library, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Texas State Law Library and the Texas State Library and Archives, to locate reference materials about the building, the county courts system and contemporaneous descriptions of significant events.

Hidalgo County (through ERO Architects) provided copies of previous reports and studies of the courthouse, commissioned by the county, for review. Finally, a general sense of the condition, occupancy and use of the building was gathered during the course of two day-long site visits, to assist in preparing the broad preservation recommendations.

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Jacqueline Armendáriz contributed to this story. For more information on the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and the City of Edinburg, please log on to http://edinburgedc.com or to http://www.facebook.com/edinburgedc

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