Austin County commissioners on Monday decided to take a $17 million bond issue before voters on Nov. 6 which, if approved, would cover construction costs for a justice center and emergency medical services station.
“Understand that if you do [want to have a bond election], when we vote for the budget after a while you’re going to have to bring your big boy panties and up the tax rate because we ain’t paying for the bond with what the tax rate is right now,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Randy Reichardt.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Rinn was the lone holdout on the motion.
The county also unanimously approved a motion to issue $9.5 million in certificates of obligation to repair the jail and sheriff’s office. Because the jail repairs are regulated by a state agency and the county has promised to make upgrades, they can’t risk putting that on a bond referendum and having it fail, officials said.
“The jail and sheriff’s office cannot be in this bond election,” said architect Kenny Burns during a July meeting. “If the bond election fails and it’s included in there, you’ve now told the jail commission you’re going to fix it but you can’t fix it and you can’t go borrow money. We have a little bit of a problem. That’s why this project is complicated.”
County Judge Tim Lapham suggested refinancing the county’s 2009 bonds, issuing $5 million in certificates of obligation to cover repairs and new construction for the jail and sheriff’s office and pay out reserves of $4.5 million.
“The $9.5 [million] gets the old part of the jail refurbished and gets the sheriff’s office and dispatch built,” Lapham said. “The only thing that absolutely has to happen today is if we are going to put a bond on the ballot, we have to decide that today. But we have to have a game plan for COs.”
County officials have been in talks with Lower Colorado River Authority about moving a power line in order to allow for building expansion. That cost also will be included in the bond election.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Mark Lamp said the projects amount to a “major county infrastructure upgrade.”
“This is big boy stuff here,” he said. “This ain’t just putting a roof on a building. We’re looking at this [to last] for 25 years.”
Jails age in “dog years,” Burns explained because they’re used 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and the inmates aren’t necessarily prioritizing the need to keep the facilities in good condition.
“The people that are in them are not taking care of them,” Burns said. “We’re not talking about the sheriff’s office; they do their best. They really do age quickly. Twenty-five years is a long time if you’re not doing upgrades. The bond election, if it passes, we could consider going three stories which gives us the potential to do future expansion.”
The next meeting of Austin County Commissioners Court is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 27.