County gives notice of intent to issue $10M COs
Polk County Enterprise - December 2007
LIVINGSTON — Polk County Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to give notice that the county intends to issue certificates of obligation to fund construction of $10 million judicial center plus architect and engineering fees.
Funding the project with certificates of obligation “fast-tracks” the project to provide improved security for judicial proceedings that are currently crowded into the second floor of the courthouse.
Certificates of obligation do not need to go before voters for approval, a factor that drew opposition from Commissioners Buddy Purvis and Robert Willis.
Bond Counselor Tom Pollan told commissioners that certificates of obligation are secured by a combination of taxes and revenue, but general obligation bonds are a pledge against taxes only.
He sought a preliminary opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office and they support the unique financing arrangement, Pollan said.
“Certificates of Obligation are the only form I know that you can have a combination tax and revenue pledge,” Pollan said. “To the extent that you have revenue, you don’t have to levy taxes.”
County Judge John Thompson initiated the plan to use new revenue generated by the expanded capacity at the IAH Detention Center to fund the expansion of court-related facilities instead of taxpayers bearing the additional expense.
The county’s share of revenue from IAH is expected to be $1.5 million and is likely to increase after the current contract term, according to Thompson.
A portion of that $1.5 million would be dedicated to repaying the estimated $10.3 million in certificates for the judicial center with excess revenue used to retire the $19 million jail expansion project.
Once the jail expansion is complete, the county also expects to rent additional cell space to other Texas counties who are also facing overcrowded jail conditions, Thompson said.
“We have a rare opportunity to use money we get from detention facilities so that inmates are funding the cost of dealing with inmates,” Thompson said.
“If I had heard all this before today, I would probably vote yes,” Purvis said. “But I had made up my mind to put this out for the public to vote on it and I don’t see how I can change my mind.”
Thompson responded that the revenue estimates have been available to commissioners since the budget workshops in September.
IAH recently expanded from 500 to 1,000 beds, doubling the revenue expectations. Eight hundred of those beds are under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Willis’s motion to table the resolution for further study failed with a vote of 2-3.
“The (facility study) committee has done a great job with this project, Willis said. “As I recall we started back in 2000 or 2001 when we went to the public for $20 some-odd million and the project was voted down. A few years later it was cut back to 18 or 15 and voted down. So now we’re here today to do virtually the same project.”
“If we’ve gone to the public twice and they said no we need to go back and ask them. If we don’t it’s like saying we don’t care what you think,” Willis said.
“The two previous times we were talking about using their tax dollars. Now we’re using revenue that we generate that does not come from tax dollars,” Thompson said. “We went out and sought it and brought it here. Now we have an option for the people that create the demand on the judicial system to pay for it.”
“You’re just taking it out of one pocket or the other,” Willis said. “You can take the (IAH revenue) to reduce taxes. You can do it without a tax increase.”
Thompson responded that commissioners recently approved $19 million in certificates of obligation that increase jail capacity from 118 beds to 350.
“Now if you’re not going to step up to bat and give the folks that have to deal with this the facilities to work with you’ve done a disservice to the people that depend on us to keep the system in place,” Thompson said.
The plan drew overwhelmingly favorable comments from the members of the facility study group as well as the staff and elected officials that work in justice of the peace, county court at law and district courts.
Sheriff Kenneth Hammack said the layout of the existing courthouse and the overflow of people that enter on a daily basis make it nearly impossible to short up security.
“At this time, if we bring in an inmate, we have to bring them unrestrained in civilian clothes. We can’t allow them to be seen by prospective jurors in shackles or an inmate uniform,”
In the plans for the judicial center, a secure area is provided where inmates can be brought to and from the courtroom without intermingling with the public.
District Attorney Lee Hon told commissioners that Crime Victim Coordinator Sherry Sprayberry was attacked in her office exactly one year prior to Tuesday’s hearing.
Sherry offices by herself on the first floor near the elevator shaft, and a Onalaska woman came to her office to get a protective order for herself and her 2 year old son after her husband had been arrested by Onalaska police for family violence, Hon said.
“Unbeknownst to anyone in my office, he had made bond and came along with his mother directly to the courthouse. When they came in, tempers quickly escalated and Sherry was assaulted by the husband. The grandmother grabbed the 2-year-old and exited the east side of the building.
In response to the screaming on the first floor, Hon, Judge Thompson and Millard Moffett intervened.
The father had already got in the pickup with the little boy who was sitting in his lap unrestrained.
“We tried to get him to stop and told him that police were en route, but he ran from police with the little boy between him and the steering wheel. After a short pursuit by Richard Bailey and Leon Middleton he was arrested. He and the grandmother face charges of assault on a public servant and endangering a child,” Hon said.
“I have an immense amount of admiration for Sherry,” Thompson said. “I went down and followed Sherry out of the building I was standing at the door of the truck with my hand on the doorknob trying to reason with the man. She was standing in front of the pickup with it running. She has more grit than about anybody I know.”
Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace testified that in earlier efforts to pass bonds for the project, voters in his precinct said they would support the project if it could be accomplished for less than $12 million, which the current proposal does.
“Now that we have a plan that no tax dollars are going to be spent, that is well below the $12 million I think this is a good time to consider and approve this plan.”