Only have a minute? Listen instead
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
The replacement of a cooling tower that allowed the Hidalgo County Courthouse to reopen on Monday will come at a continuing cost to the county after officials here approved a plan to lease the tower on a month-to-month basis.
But how long that lease will remain in effect is unclear, and largely depends on when the new courthouse will open.
“We do not have a determined time at this point,” said Oscar Villarreal, the county’s director for facilities management.
“It’s all based on … the new courthouse project. It’s depending on how soon we can start doing a transition, that’s basically how long it will take us to be renting this equipment,” Villarreal said.
The county was forced to replace the cooling tower after the frame supporting it collapsed on June 6, leaving the courthouse unsafe for occupancy due to the lack of air conditioning just as a heat wave hit the region.
County officials rushed to find and install a replacement as not only court business remained at a standstill, but other operations, as well.
That included the Hidalgo County Clerk’s Office, which is housed on the first floor of the courthouse and is responsible for maintaining vital statistics, such as birth and death certificates.
Crews completed the installation over the weekend. On Tuesday, the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court officially signed off on the repair work when they approved a lease agreement with Texas Chiller Systems, a Corpus Christi-based company.
According to the item caption listed on the meeting agenda, the lease costs $41,086 for the first month, and $12,000 for each additional month after that.
However, the lease contract itself was not included in the agenda, nor as part of the unofficial meeting minutes published on the county’s website Wednesday.
Villarreal explained that the higher upfront cost for the first month of the lease included the costs for delivery and installation of the cooling tower, which came from San Antonio.
“It’s a turnkey price, which included the demolition of the old cooling tower, and setting up the new cooling tower, crane service, and all materials and labor involved in assembling the equipment, including transportation,” Villarreal said.
The original cooling tower frame was damaged in mid-April, when an allegedly drunk driver crashed through the courthouse’s perimeter fence and struck the structure.
Crews stabilized the structure, but by then, it may have been too late — the frame’s material may have made it more susceptible to failure after those repairs.
“It was a fiberglass tower, so vibration may have played a factor,” Villarreal explained.
However, the replacement tower — which isn’t new — is made of sterner stuff.
“It is a stainless steel tower, so it’s a really good tower, but it’s a used tower,” Villarreal explained.
The facilities director added that county officials are looking into amending the contract into a lease-to-own agreement in the future, given the uncertainty over when the new courthouse will open.
“We are making arrangements to reach out to the leasing company … to ask them for a proposal for a purchase of this cooling tower,” Villarreal said.
“That would be a better option than to do a long-term lease,” he added a moment later.
Currently, there is no timeline for when the new courthouse will open its doors.
It was previously set to open last year, but several projected dates came and went with the new building still surrounded by temporary fencing and construction crews still actively working.
Then, in March, the commissioners’ court hired a Houston-based company called Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, or WJE, to conduct a comprehensive inspection of the still-unfinished courthouse.
WJE’s task is to suss out myriad problems that have already afflicted the building, including leaks in the roof, issues with the HVAC system and other issues caused by 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.
It remains unclear if WJE has already conducted the inspection, which it estimated would take several days.
Once it does, however, the county will still need to take steps to rectify whatever construction defects WJE finds.
The only thing that is clear is that the new courthouse continues to cost money.
On May 16, two months after greenlighting WJE’s nearly $130,000 inspection, county officials approved paying for more than $330,000 in additional costs to Morganti, the company serving as construction manager on the build.