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Aransas County residents sue county commissioners over courthouse replacement plans

Posted at 2:24 PM, Dec 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-18 18:08:56-05

ARANSAS COUNTY, Texas — Voters in Aransas County shot down a measure to replace the county courthouse with a three-story $17.2 million building in November.

The courthouse was destroyed in Hurricane Harvey and county leaders have been working in an old strip mall ever since.

On Monday, Aransas County Commissioners voted 4-1 to issue tax notes that would allow the county to build a smaller, two-story courthouse at a price tag of $13.4 million.

Two residents, Andrew Kane and Jeffery Hutt, are fighting that move and say the commissioner's court is in breach of contract with the voters.

They have filed suit seeking a temporary injunction against commissioners.

"The whole issue is the citizens want a vote on this," Kane said. "The county put it up to the citizens to vote on this and absolutely less than 60 days later said, 'we're not going to recognize, honor the vote of the citizens, we’re going to do it anyway because our lawyers and our bond council said we can do tax notes. We don’t have to have your permission.'"

County Judge Burt Mills says voters had a voice and commissioners are responding to the will of the people. He adds the tax note will not increase taxes.

Bob Henderson, the county's finance director, in a presentation to the commissioners just before their vote, said that the tax rate would be level for three years. However, the tax note would have to be refinanced, or the tax rate could go up to 7.75 cents, from the current rate of 4.71 cents.

"We did give them an opportunity to vote and they voted down what we had out there so we thought we were coming up with some sort of compromise by saying okay let's go to this two-story," Mills said. "Although it's not big enough in our estimation, we'll go with it because we need to get this done and done soon to save the taxpayers money."

Mills says that construction costs have gone up 30 percent since the county began the process of replacing the courthouse.

For Kane, the issue remains that voters should have the ultimate say on the courthouse and the county should bring it back to voters in May 2021.

"In March they told everybody in the grant application the taxpayer’s cost would be $6 million," Kane said. "Then it went to $10 million. And then in the same meeting, it went from $10 million to $20 million, they decided to go bigger. That’s what caught my attention."

"So I said, voters should have some input here," Kane added. "And the voters should be able to decide."

Mills says there is no guarantee it would pass next year, or what would happen with construction costs.

"The fact of it is they can't guarantee that in May the issue would pass," Mills said. "It's not guaranteed. And the commissioners and I have a fiduciary responsibility to get the best deal and save the county the most money we can."