Politics

Rumors Emerge While Courthouse Relocation Stalled

The Hempstead County Quorum Court had some end-of-year financial housekeeping to tend to, as well as the implementation of new property taxes, getting a new garbage truck in service and establishing a new account for handling State Fuel Tax revenues during its November meeting. All of the agenda items were passed unanimously with little discussion. But, when discussion turned to the new location for the courthouse and recent rumors related to it, the Court split, and emotions started to run a little high.

Rumors stirred up recently involving Pafford and the status of the former Farmers Bank building that was purchased by Hempstead County for the future location of the County Courthouse. The rumors lead many too draw conclusions about the situation and to inquire of County Officials about the state of progress toward relocation. In an effort to clear things up, Justice of the Peace Ed Darling brought up the issue during the meeting.

Darling told the Court that he and others met with the architect, engineer and general contractor earlier in November to discuss the bid for the remodel of the former Farmers Bank building to serve as the new courthouse location. Darling said the contractors had originally given a bid of $3,200,000, which is more money than the county has to spend or wants to. Darling said that they worked through the bid to trim out some of the “fluff” in an attempt to bring the price down to a more manageable level.  Darling said they were able to cut a little over $400,000 from the bid but even at $2.7 million, the bid still exceeds the money the county set aside for the project or has available for it.

Darling said the county basically has two options for financing the project so it can move forward. The first of the options would be delaying until the next general election in November of 2020 or, at least, until a special election can be held so that the citizens of Hempstead County can vote whether to accept a tax increase to provide the revenue and then waiting until the county has the cash in hand to move forward with construction. The second option is to secure a bank loan to finish the construction and raise the funds to pay it back at a later date, likely also through a tax, pending voter approval.

The Quorum Court was clearly divided on the options. On the one hand, some of the members expressed an aversion to putting the county into debt for the project, preferring instead to get the voters involved and generating the money through a temporary tax. Other members of the Quorum Court were unwilling to delay the project, preferring to seek a loan to cover the costs that exceed the capital the county has available.

Those who expressed a desire to get a loan to pay for the remodel, expressed reasons including the negative health impact the current building is reportedly having on employees who work at the courthouse every day and the disappointment that some will have due to the work and money they’ve put into improving Hope’s downtown.

During the discussion, J.P. David Clayton presented an option that would allow the county to take the time needed to raise the money, free it up from the large utility bills while trying to clear up the recent rumors about the courthouse involving one of his constituents.  Clayton said he contacted Ben and Jamie Gresham after the rumors made their way to him and was given a statement by Jamie to try to clarify what was said.

In the statement, Gresham thanked Clayton for reaching out for clarification and said that they were not trying to stir the pot or to take away anything from the county. Gresham said that the rumors started after a recent lunch conversation about what was going to happen with the building since it had been sitting for some time.

Gresham said that Pafford is fortunate to be in a growth mode currently and will be adding more employees soon as the corporate and billing offices both plan to expand. Gresham said the company currently employs more than 1100 people in four state, including around 120 employees in three different locations in Hempstead and Howard Counties.

Gresham told Clayton that if the county is in a position where they will not be utilizing the building for a while, or would like to get out from under it, Pafford would be interested in possibly leasing or purchasing the building for what the county paid for it.

Gresham told Clayton that they are thankful and blessed to be a part of Hempstead County and want to see it continue to prosper. She said they hope the county intends to move forward on the courthouse because a new location is needed but if there is anything Pafford can do to show they are good corporate citizens; they are willing to do it.

Clayton said that his idea is to lease the building to Pafford for the short term, which would bring in some revenue to the County’s coffers, eliminate the monthly utility costs for the former Farmers Bank building (According to County Clerk Karen Smith, the county has paid around $71,000 in utilities since taking the building over earlier this year) and give the county time to raise the funds necessary to move forward with the construction.

Those not wanting to wait, the most vocal of whom was J.P. Cherry Stewart, felt getting a loan to move the courthouse project forward now is the best route to take. Stewart said that getting the new courthouse ready is the top priority in her opinion and that waiting is just going to cause the costs of materials and the contractors to go up.

Clayton said it is true that construction costs and the cost of the bids to remodel will go up if the county delays the relocation to the courthouse while it saves up the money but that, just like with his home budget, when the money isn’t there to make a purchase, you can’t make the purchase.

J.P. Ed Darling also agreed that costs would go up, but told Stewart that revenue would outpace the increased costs and the county wouldn’t have to pay the approximately 3.75% interest on a $1.4 million loan at a time when finances are already tight for the county.

While those opposed to taking a loan out cited fiscal concerns and accountability to the voters as their main concerns, especially with all the financial difficulties the county has had this year, those opposed had other motivations for their position.

One of the main concerns, expressed by Treasurer Judy Flowers during the discussion, is the condition of the current courthouse and the health problems, specifically respiratory problems, that condition causes. Flowers said she never had issues with it in the past but has developed asthma over the nine years she’s worked in the courthouse. She said she can leave for a few days and can breathe again but returns to coughing breathing issues within a day of returning to work.

J.P. Olen Dorman, addressing J.P. David Clayton, said, “It looks like you’re overlooking the conditions of this building where you’re asking your employees to go to work every day.”

Clayton responded that he is aware the condition of the building and has seen it for himself. “No one is even thinking that we don’t need to get out of here.”, he said, “I know this building is terrible.” Clayton emphasized that he was just one voice on the Quorum Court, and he had presented the idea of leasing the building to Pafford as an option for the county while it get’s its financial house in order. “I don’t want to go out there and say the 11 of us said it was ok too borrow almost $2 million,” he said, “That needs to go to the voters.”

Even if they take the loan, the Quorum Court would still likely be looking at a tax increase to fund the renovations to the building in order to cover the payments. The Court discussed possibly trying to pass a Sunset Tax that would expire when the required money to fund the project had been raised. A similar tax was passed by the voters of Hempstead County when Hempstead Hall was being built.

The sunset tax discussion briefly diverted to a discussion of the remaining ¼ cent tax that was passed when the Hempstead Hall Sunset Tax was passed. Originally, the tax was said to go toward the maintenance of Hempstead Hall but, according to several of the J.P.’s, the wording was changed last minute and the tax revenue instead goes into the UAHT general fund to be spent wherever the college’s Board feels they need it. That combined with a tax that the voters passed when UAHT joined the UA System nets the college around $120,000 per month according to Treasurer Flowers.

Hearing that number and seeing a list of unpaid property taxes totaling around $460,000 inspired some ideas and caused some frustration for some of the J.P.’s. J.P. Cherry Stewart questioned what could be done to collect on the taxes and pondered aloud if the county could get its hands on the tax revenue currently going to the college.  

Whether the Court decides to move on getting the approximately $1,400,000 loan to get into the new courthouse next year or whether they save the money and pay the contractor in cash, the issue will still be coming before the voters of Hempstead County in 2020 and the decision on whether to accept a tax increase to get the project completed and paid for will have a huge impact on the county’s finances and employees.

Stewart said she has faith in the voters and believes they will see what they are trying to do and will support the tax to get the courthouse relocated.

Whichever side each J.P. stands on the issue, most of them expressed agreement in getting the issue before the voters as soon as possible and getting moving on whichever option they decide.

The Quorum Court agreed to take the next few weeks to consider the best way to move forward on the courthouse relocation and to discuss the issue with their constituents before discussing it again during the December meeting.  

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