Hidalgo County hires firm to determine how bad leaks are at new courthouse

EDINBURG — Move-in day for the Hidalgo County Courthouse has hit yet another setback after officials discovered leaks in the roof at the newly constructed building.

However, the leaky roof isn’t the only issue plaguing the seven-story building, whose opening was pushed back multiple times last year.

There are also problems with air leaking in through the building’s exterior shell, leading to humidity issues inside the courthouse.

The problems loom so large that, on Tuesday, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court hired a firm to conduct a comprehensive inspection of the entire facility.

The county hired Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., or WJE, of Houston, to determine the extent of the damage.

WJE’s inspection will make use of aerial drones, fog machines, moisture probes, infrared imaging and other techniques both inside and out of the courthouse to examine the roof, the exterior shell, windows and more.

According to documents the county provided to WJE ahead of its inspection proposal, both water and air have been infiltrating the building due, in part, to defective construction.

“There is also reported non-conforming work installed by the Construction Manager and their subcontractors throughout the building,” WJE stated in a March 2 proposal to provide consulting services.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez confirmed WJE’s assertions.

“I think we have some issues with the roof. I think we have some issues with some of the windows and some issues with pressure, negative pressure, in the courthouse that we’re trying to correct,” Cortez said via phone Wednesday.

But the judge was less forthcoming when asked what the inspection’s price tag will be, as well as fixing the issues that the company uncovers.

“We’re trying to identify responsibility and solutions to the problems. And we’re right in the middle of those things, so I’d rather not discuss those things at this time,” Cortez said.

The new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])
The new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

The judge further asked for the public’s trust that he and other county leaders are doing their best to resolve the construction issues without further burdening taxpayers.

“At this point in time, the public is better served if you allow us to do our jobs and we will do our jobs,” Cortez said.

In 2017, the county hired San Antonio-based firm, Jacobs Project Management Co., to serve as the overall project manager for the build.

Jacobs, in turn, has been overseeing the work of other contractors associated with the project, including architects HDR Architecture Inc. and ERO Architects, and construction manager, Morganti Texas Inc., which has offices in both Houston and San Antonio.

It was Jacobs that requested that WJE inspect the condition of the building, as well as any construction-related documents, according to WJE’s consulting proposal.

The construction project has seen its share of delays — setbacks that have steadily increased the cost to finish the courthouse.

In January 2021, The Monitor reported the courthouse’s original projected cost of $150 million had risen by 20% to $180 million.

Since then, the county has approved additional work authorizations that have tacked on millions more to the price.

In January 2022, Jacobs requested a six-month extension of its contract with the county in order to install environmental sanitization equipment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jacobs planned to install ionizers in the HVAC system to clean the air, as well as “touchless” devices, such as soap and paper towel dispensers.

The company estimated the pandemic upgrades would cost the county an additional $665,000 and gave the county a new expected completion date of May 2022, with move-in to follow in June.

The pandemic may have been when problems first arose, according to Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes.

The new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

COVID-19 not only necessitated the installation of high-tech sanitation equipment, but it also changed how the construction crews did their work onsite.

“When COVID hit and things had to shut down, we saw that there was a change in the way everybody worked, including the staff … that was in charge of the construction,” Fuentes said.

The county had hired Jacobs to be its “eyes and ears” on the project, but COVID changed how people showed up.

“There was probably some deficiencies and oversight starting even back at that point,” Fuentes said, adding that county officials ultimately asked Jacobs for “more presence” at the site.

In August 2022, Jacobs requested another contract extension — at a cost of $385,000 — that pushed back the estimated date of completion again — this time, from August 2022 to December 2022.

“We were led to believe that we would be completed by end of year — that we would be moving in (in) December and open in January,” Cortez said.

But the new year came and went with the courthouse still no closer to opening its doors.

Instead, throughout the month of January, crews could be seen using jackhammers to rip out concrete in front of the courthouse’s steps.

It remains unclear why crews demolished, then replaced, the concrete.

The new Hidalgo County Courthouse under construction on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

By mid-February, Jacobs had reached out to county officials for another extension.

This time, however, the company’s communications hinted at the problems that are just now coming to public light.

“The meeting focused specifically on identifying the issues, building team trust, and advancing building construction to substantial completion,” Jacobs stated in a Feb. 16 letter about a meeting it had held with both county leaders and the construction team.

“(T)he team has progressed, yet still struggle (sic) with partnering and collaboration,” the company further stated.

Jacobs also said it would need to bring on more personnel in order to address the continued delays.

Absent from the letter, however, was any sort of timeline for when the company now expects to complete the project.

Instead, Jacobs proposed to charge Hidalgo County an additional $100,000 per month for its continued services. It also proposed to increase that rate by, “4% beginning Jan. 2024 with the same annual rate increase each subsequent year.”