Courthouse renovation changes discussed by commissioners during Monday’s meeting
GROVETON – Major concerns over limited seating and the overall arrangement of the second-floor district court-room were addressed Monday by Trinity County commis-sioners during their monthly session. Meeting with project architect Michael Gaertner and project manager Stephanie White, commissioners were told that the state fire marshal’s office was limiting occupancy of the courtroom to 100 people. “That’s going to be a real problem,” County Attorney Joe Bell said. “Especially during a capital murder trial or other major trail when we call in a jury panel of 400 and 150 show up. “When you combine the jury panel and all of the attorneys and court personnel, you’re going to have a lot more than 100 people,” he noted. Gaertner told commissioners that he would talk to the fire marshal’s office about the matter and felt confident that during court sessions, they could exceed the 100-person limit. “When this issue has come up during other projects, the fire marshal has told us that as long as there is a certified (peace) officer present, we could exceed the limit,” Gaertner said, adding that the court’s bailiff should be enough to meet that require-ment. Gaertner and White were present Monday to update the commissioners on the progress of the courthouse renovation project now underway. During the course of the meeting, local officials were pleased to learn that the date for “substantial completion” for the project is now set for June 29. They had previously believed it would come in October. The substantial completion date is the point where the county would be able to move back into the courthouse, although some construction work would still be underway. During their presentation, White presented a preliminary layout for the district courtroom for the commissioners to review and all agreed that changes needed to be made to allow for more public seating. Because the cost of the renovation work is being funded primarily from a $5 million Texas Historical Commission (THC) Courthouse Preservation Grant, the state is requiring that the district courtroom be returned to its original configuration. Those familiar with the courtroom are used to having the judge’s bench located on the south side of the courtroom facing north while spectator seating faced south. Under the configuration required by THC, the judge’s bench would be relocated to the east side of the room with spectators facing west. “There is a reason this was changed,” Bell noted. The county attorney noted that sometime during its history – probably not too long after the building was completed in 1914 – county officials rearranged the room. “Do they (THC) realize we’ll have a severe problem administering justice under this plan?” Bell asked. White told him that THC officials were insisting on the east-west layout and noted that Trinity County Judge Mark Evans had expressed Bell’s concerns during his meetings with state officials. “I’ve also told them that future commissioners courts or district judges could order the room to be changed,” Evans added. The county judge noted he felt the layout White was presenting was probably “the best set-up possible” to the flow of foot traffic in relation to the building’s new elevator. The elevator is being installed on the east side of the courthouse and those using it would exit into a vestibule and then travel down a new corridor to the district courtroom. They would enter the room behind and to the south of the judge’s bench and then travel along a walkway along the south side of the room to arrive at the courtroom’s spectator benches. Members of the jury would be seated in a box located along the north side of the courtroom and would face south. They would have a separate entrance into the courtroom located behind and to the north of the judge’s bench. The main spectator entrance would be a set of double doors located on the west end of the courtroom but people using that entrance would have to climb the west stairs from the ground floor. After hearing the concerns regarding the need to increase the space for public seating, White said she would continue to work on the layout and would present changes to commis-sioners in future meetings. In related renovation business, commissioners approved Cha-nge Order #4, which added about $79,500 to the overall cost of the project. The money would come out of the contingency fund that that built into the project’s budget before construction began this past summer. White noted that based on the original $4.7 million bid for the renovation work, a 10 percent or $470,000 contingency fund was set aside for the project. Since construction began, commissioners approved three previous change orders, which added $218,000 to the cost, leaving about $252,000 in the fund. The $79,500 in changes okayed Monday would reduce the contingency fund down to about $172,500. Change Order #4 included changes to the original plumbing, roof and window work. White noted the order covers replacing one window that did not match those in the rest of the courthouse and the repair of some window seals that had been cut sometime in the past. “We now have the demolition phase completed which means we have found all of the major problems that would require change orders,” White told commissioners. She added that while additional costs might be encountered, they should be relatively minor. Gaertner added he is confident there will be a substantial amount of money left in the contingency fund when the courthouse is completed. Initially, the renovation project had a budget of $6.4 million, with the THC grant contributing $5 million and the balance covered by certificates of obligation issued by the county. Because the bid price of $4.7 million came in so much lower than expected, the overall cost of the renovation will not require the state or the county to spend all of the money they had allocated. JP court report During the meeting, commis-sioners received a report from County Auditor Sheila Johnson detailing issues she discovered with a $20 change fund in the Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace’s office in Trinity. The fund was created last year by the commissioners in each of the JP offices specifically to allow the JPs and their clerk to make change for people who were paying court-ordered fines. Johnson said that during a routine cash court performed Feb. 25, it was discovered that both JP Bobby Nicholds and his clerk, Mary Winnett, were borrowing small amounts of money from the fund for personal use. In the case of Nicholds it was 35 cents while Winnett had borrowed $15. Johnson noted that both had repaid the fund. She told commissioners that Nicholds was aware that Win-nett had borrowed the $15 but agreed to halt the practice of borrowing from the fund when Johnson explained that the money was only to be used to help make change for fines being paid. “This is not a petty cash fund. They are not supposed to use it to buy office supplies and they are certainly not supposed to borrow from it for personal use,” Johnson told the commissioners. She noted that Nicholds has now closed his change fund and returned the money to the county treasury. Noting that last year the Precinct 3 JP office had a major incident of embezzlement involving a former clerk, Evans thanked Johnson for catching the matter before it became a problem Audit report In other business Monday, commissioners received the annual audit report for the 2009 fiscal year from Trinity CPA Thomas Ramey. Ramey noted that 2009 was a “really good year” for the county finances with the road and bridge funds ending with a balance of $394,154 thanks to unexpected funds from the U.S. Forest Service. However, the general fund, which covers the cost of most county departments, ended with a deficit of a little over $67,500. Ramey noted that one of the factors that lead to a deficit in the general fund was the purchase of eight patrol vehicles – six for the sheriff’s department and two for county constables. He recommended that in the future, commissioners consider spreading the purchase out over several years. Evans also noted that the cost of moving out of the courthouse into the temporary facilities across the street and the cost of renting those offices also contributed to the deficit. Other business During the meeting, commissioners also: • Approved setting a 25 mile per hour speed limit on the Lloyd Bell Road from its intersection with FM 356 to its end. The road serves as part of the entrance into the Trinity Cove Subdivision. • Approved a minor change to the easement on the south side of lot number 6 in the Eaglewood Subdivision located of FM 3188 north of Trinity. • Approved an agreement with the Harbor Point Property Owners Association that would allow Precinct 1 deputy constables to be paid for patrolling inside the sub-division. Pct. 1 Constable Woody Wallace said the subdivision wanted deputies to patrol about 10 hours each week and agreed to pay the county $20 per hour for their time. The county would then pay the deputy constables for that time after making the necessary payroll deductions. • Approved agreement with the City of Trinity and the Westwood Shores Municipal Utility District to lease the use of county Automark voting machines for use during their May 8 elections. The cost to lease each machines is $300. • Agreed to serve as a sponsor for the April 10 Davy Crockett Bear Chase Marathon being organized by the Trinity County Chamber of Commerce. • Heard a report from Rick Renfro of Christian Home Builders about the need for the county to adobe the provisions of HB 2833 which would require contractors to meet 2006 construction and energy codes for all home construction in rural areas of the county. Renfro noted that when the Texas legislature allowed the Texas Residential Construction Commission to expire on Sept. 1, 2009, homebuilders operating in rural areas were only required to follow the 2000 construction and energy codes and that inspections were no longer required. By adopting HB 2833, the county would be able to hold builders to the higher standards and once again require they have their work inspected.