County commissioners tackle courthouse repairs
By Dave Rogers
For The News
They tossed around some obscene numbers for a so-called “Ike Dike,” played “hot potato” again on a decades-away solution for skyrocketing retiree healthcare costs and extended deputies’ certificate pay another two weeks.
But when it came to “brick and mortar” solutions, the Orange County Commissioners may have gotten closest to an answer with an early Tuesday afternoon workshop that addressed a fix for the front of the courthouse.
Since 2015, the front of Orange County’s 1937 courthouse has been covered by scaffolding and yellow “caution” tape.
The worry is that a piece of the marble adorning the front of the three-story building might come crashing down.
“Some of the bolts that hold the exterior ceiling of that marble are starting to corrode and that marble has dropped about a half inch,” Barry Burton, Precinct 2 commissioner, said.
Burton noted it was a preliminary study of the courthouse by HVAC contractor Way Services that brought the problem to light.
“It’s definitely a safety issue,” Burton said. “If that drops, that’s hundreds of pounds of marble that’s a safety issue for anybody standing under it.
“Plus, it’s imported from Italy. It’s however old the courthouse is. It’s irreplaceable. You’re not going to find anything like it.”
The uniqueness of the art deco courthouse is part of the problem. Like most Texas courthouses, it has been designated an historic building and as such, any work that affects the original appearance – inside or out – requires a lot of red tape and paperwork.
John Dineen of HDR, a globe-trotting architectural firm out of Omaha, Nebraska, delivered a proposal to prepare a Master Plan to meet Texas Historical Commission requirements.
The total cost for the plan and the repair work would be in the $200,000 to $250,000 range, said Burton and Orange County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton.
But grants from the Historical Commission could shave up to about $100,000 off the county’s cost.
Carlton said he expects a quick decision from the four commissioners who sit with him on county court.
“We’ll probably put up an agenda item in the next week or two,” Carlton said. “We’ve got to make a decision pretty quickly in order to meet the time frame.”
According to Dineen, his company would need about 105 days to put together a master plan and another 45 days to get it approved by THC.
That amount of time leaves only a few days before October, which he characterized as the 2017 deadline to apply for grants.
The opposite of a “tight” deadline crossed commissioners’ desks later Tuesday in the form of paperwork from the U.S. Corps of Engineers (COE) regarding a proposed coastal barrier running from along the Gulf of Mexico from south Texas to Louisiana.
Called the “Gulf Coast Levee System” by Carlton, the project is also known as the “Ike Dike.” It doesn’t have Congressional approval, or any funding so far.
The COE called for Orange County to sign a non-binding letter of intent, not a problem, everyone agreed.
But it also required Carlton to sign a certificate stating Orange County had financial capability to pay.
As it stands, Carlton, disclosed, the COE’s estimated cost of the Orange County part of the Ike Dike would be $1.9 billion, of which Orange County would be expected to pay $700 million.
“The financial side — that’s just ludicrous,” declared Jody Crump, Precinct 4 commissioner.
Later, he termed it “a politely worded federal extortion attempt.”
Carlton said even if the county took out a 5-percent, 50-year loan to pay the $700 million, the annual Ike Dike charge would be $43 million, after you throw in $5 million per year for upkeep.
That’s equal to 1.5 times the county’s total annual tax receipts.
But commissioners 4-1 to sign and return the papers, with Crump voting no.
While all agreed it was unaffordable as written, they wanted to leave open the possibility of taking part in the project if conditions changed in the future – such as the federal government paying 100 percent of the costs.
“Once you’re excluded, you’re out. I think we stay in the game, for now,” said Johnny Trahan, Precinct 1 commissioner.
John Gothia, Precinct 3 commissioner, came loaded with comparison information on public and private retirement benefits, studies that showed Orange County to be far more beneficial than most others.
But after its third discussion in a month about the possibility of eliminating health insurance payments as a retirement benefit for future county employees, the court members seemed more uncertain than ever of the best solution.
No action was taken when the issue was came up on the mid-afternoon agenda.