Left to right: Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, Broaddus and Associates Austin Area Manager Brenda Jenkins, Broaddus and Associates President James Broaddus during a commissioners court meeting break last week. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
As aging county offices bulge at the seams and state inspectors threaten to shut down a county jail short on beds, Hays County Commissioners decided last week to await an evaluation of the county’s office and jail expansion needs before proceeding with any related construction projects.
“All options are on the table,” said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), who champions reducing the size of the proposed government center in favor of constructing an additional building complex to include all justice system-related departments, including a new jail.
“I don’t think all options should be on the table because in that way lies chaos,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), who, along with at least two other commissioners, favors expanding the existing jail and moving most justice system-related offices to the government center planned for construction near Wonder World Drive and Stagecoach Trail.
Next week, Broaddus & Associates (B&A), the project management firm for the government center, will suggest a consulting firm to analyze the jail and look at ways the county’s justice system might be streamlined. Broaddus & Associates will conduct its own study using the results of the jail analysis.
“We’re going to look at all the county’s building needs and come back to the commissioners court with some recommendation on how to build those needs,” said B&A President James Broaddus after last week’s commissioners court meeting. Broaddus said it would be “several months” before his firm presents its findings to the commissioners court.
Faced with more than $280 million in proposed roads, parks and other buildings, commissioners may opt for a government center smaller than what is called for by the the current design, for which the county already has paid PBSJ Corporation $2.4 million. Construction of a government center as currently designed would cost the county at least $100-$115 million, not counting debt interest. B&A representatives offered to redesign the building. B&A Austin Area Manager Brenda Jenkins told commissioners last week that $89.6 million would buy the county a redesigned building able to accommodate the same number of departments PBSJ’s designs would allow.
Expressing concern that the property tax rate would climb too high if the county doesn’t control its spending, Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) said he does not want the county to pay more than $60 million for the government center.
“What I’m seeing is a high, within a five-year period, of an 11.5-cent increase and I’m seeing an average of about a seven-cent increase, after the county calculated a….seven- to eight-cent tax increase,” Conley said.
Jenkins said Conley’s proposed $60 million building complex would entail downgrading from the originally-planned 300,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet, and would not entail a lengthening of the current timeline.
“Commissioner Conley, I appreciate your comments, but we certainly don’t want to move into a building that we have already outgrown,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), who has been spearheading the effort to build a government center for four years.
Planners intended the government center as currently designed to accommodate the county’s growth for 20 to 30 years. Conley said the difficulty of accurately making long-term predictions and the county’s current tight budget means county staff should accept a building designed to accommodate five to ten more years of growth.
Building a new complex housing a jail and the county’s other criminal justice-related departments would entail the county buying more land.
“We can buy 200 acres, but we can turn around and keep 100 for ourselves and look at how to incentivize developers to buy the other 100,” said Sumter. “You would not only get the property tax off of it, but you get the increased property value.”
Seeking land for the government center, Ingalsbe negotiated a land swap deal with W.C. Carson for 26 acres in an exchange completed three months ago. Carson received county land near Thorpe Land and Interstate-35 in exchange. Carson agreed to give the county another four acres and to offer five acres at half its appraised value – $217,000 – if construction of the government center begins within two years.
“With Carson, we bought the land at about a dollar a square foot,” Sumter said. “When we’re done building the government center, we think he can be selling at six to eight dollars a square foot. He gets to keep that. Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we invest in ourselves and dictate the kind of development that would go around us?”
Construction of the government center according to its current design plans would result in the largest ever Hays County building, and would probably provide space for most government offices except those of sheriff, the precinct commissioners, fire marshal, emergency management, environmental health, road and bridge, agriculture extension and personal health.
The commissioners’ court four years ago began allocating part of the tax rate to county building improvements. The budgeted amount has grown to $3 million, some of which was recently used for a new Precinct 4 Office in Dripping Springs. A portion of the fund will also be used to build a new Precinct 2 office in Kyle.
“In 2010, we hope to embed another penny, so that will be four cents embedded in the tax rate,” Sumter said last week. “And, in 2011, hopefully another penny, and that’ll be five cents. And what they’ll need to know is how much money they have to spend over the next 20 years that five cents will get them. Then, from there, they’ll figure out if they’re willing to raise taxes further to spend more to build a building.”
After the county issues debt for the construction of the government center and other facilities, the embedded amount now devoted to new buildings will be allocated to debt service.