EDINBURG — The new county courthouse project is currently estimated to cost taxpayers about $180 million, or about 20% more than initially projected.
When Hidalgo County commissioners initially began bidding out the project in 2018 under the direction of then Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia, they estimated the construction of the courthouse would cost taxpayers $150 million.
And while the actual construction of the building is currently estimated to cost about $143.8 million, the total price tag of the project is north of $180 million, according to financial information the county provided The Monitor. That figure does not include the interest the county will pay to borrow the money needed for the project.
“As you know, we still have to (demolish) the old courthouse … and provide some additional parking,” Hidalgo County Richard F. Cortez said Thursday. “So it’s still going to be a challenge.”
The demolition of the old facility and the subsequent paving of the parking lot is currently estimated to cost an additional $10 million. Then, there’s also the cost of furniture, fixtures and equipment needed inside the new building, which will cost the county another $10 million.
And finally, there’s the service fees owed to the project manager, architect and firm that conducted the materials testing, which will add another $16.6 million to the final price tag.
According to the information from the county, Jacobs Project Management Co., which is overseeing the construction of the new facility, will be paid a little more than $6.1 million for its work. HDR, the architectural firm, will be paid about $10 million for their expertise, and Terracon, which performed materials testing, will be paid about $438,000, bringing the project’s grand total to $180,541,219.07.
And that’s a pretty penny to pay for a county that is considered one of the poorest in the country, one of the fastest growing in the nation, and one that was hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Those are the challenges,” Cortez said Thursday. “When I was mayor of McAllen, McAllen had multiple sources of revenue — we owned the bridge, we owned the golf course, we owned an airport and we made money. We had ad valorem taxes, we had hotel occupancy taxes, we had all sorts of revenue. And in the county, there’s only one revenue (stream) and that’s the taxes that we collect from people. So if we don’t have money to do things, then we have to borrow money, and we have to pay that money over time.”
So far, the county has already issued debt for $170 million for the courthouse, Cortez said.
“And we’re just going to have to pay it over time,” he said. “But see, this is exactly why I was concerned. I have been an accountant, a financial person, for many, many, many years and there’s always bumps in the road. There’s always things that you didn’t foresee that happen.”
Nature is a fickle beast.
“Who would ever think that lumber prices were going to go up let’s say 30%? Who would ever know that the fires in California would be occurring? And who would ever know that the demand for building materials and stuff like that would be this,” Cortez asked rhetorically. “Okay, so all of those things, you know, ultimately impact your cost.”
And while the county still has a healthy fund balance, we’re still in the middle of big unknown, namely the impact the pandemic has had on local taxpayers.
“Because when you have this pandemic, businesses suffer, and when businesses suffer, people lose jobs,” he said. “The growth (you were expecting) doesn’t occur. So it has a lot of impacts and we definitely have our challenges going forward.”
Cortez worries about the disproportionate burden placed on taxpayers.
“A big portion of our population is in poverty, so obviously, people in poverty cannot have a lot of assets, and if they don’t have a lot of assets, they really aren’t substantial taxpayers. They don’t have the resources to be a taxpayer, so it puts a burden on those that do have that. And what you find is that 60% of the people are paying 100% of the cost,” he said. “So that makes it especially concerning to a county like Hidalgo because of those reasons. So we have to be very, very good in how we spend our money.”
And while the pandemic did not bring construction to a stop, it did affect its timeline as crew members fell ill or opted not to work to protect their health, he added.
“We are planning, as far as we know, to complete the first four floors by pretty much the end of the summer,” Cortez said. “Eventually, we feel that by November of next year, we will pretty (much) finish the courthouse, and we feel that certainly by the end of January of the following year, 2022, we will be fully, fully functional.”