In an effort to inform as many people as possible about the upcoming bond election, Pct. 3 Commissioner Heath Sims has been hosting several informational meetings about the bond, meeting with people from Milford to Maypearl to answer any questions they may have about the proposition.
While most of these sessions take place during the evening, Sims took time during his lunch hour Friday to meet with the Ellis County Master Gardeners at the Presbyterian Children’s Home in Waxahachie.
“What we’ve been trying to do is meet as many people we could get in front of and tell them about the bond, a little bit of history behind it, and try to forecast what’s projected to come,” Sims said. “I wanted to get with the Master Gardeners because you’re an active group, a lot of you are 65 or over, and that’s a part a lot of people don’t understand.
“That’s something my dad didn’t understand,” Sims said. “If you’re 65 or over or disabled, you can request a form to have your taxes frozen. But you have to request that form, you have to fill it out, and you’ve got to turn it in.
“I was a little surprised at the amount of people that did not realize they had to fill out a form,” he said. “They really thought that on their birthday when they turned 65 their taxes would automatically be frozen, and they’re not.
“And a wise thing to do on top of that, every year when you get your tax statement, I would call and ask, ‘Is my form still on file?’ because the appraisal district has been known to lose forms before, and they’ve been known to file things in wrong places,” Sims said.
Sims next addressed the growing population and projected figures for 20 years down the road, when the North Central Texas Council of Governments estimates Ellis County will have nearly 450,000 people.
“In 2000, Ellis County was projected by (NCTCOG) to have 100,000 people, and we actually had about 110,000, so that was pretty close,” the commissioner said. “But we’ve got about 140,000 people now, and the COG has us reaching 125,000 in 2010.”
Given the council’s history of projections, “We’re looking at almost a half-million people,” Sims said.
The need for new facilities is being partially driven by that explosive growth, Sims said, using the example of the county courts.
“The county courts-at-law are the busiest courts we have, and we’re behind,” he said. “And that slows the process for the guys sitting in our jail because they’re just backlogged.”
Presently, each court takes care of between 3,500 and 5,000 cases a year with the county’s present population of about 140,000 people, Sims said.
One means of alleviating the backlog is a new facility and better working conditions, the commissioner said, pointing out the average age of the facilities the county owns is 92 years old - and each has issues.
While the county courts-at-law are housed in the old Wal-Mart building, which the county leases, the county clerk is housed in a 1920s building on the square and the county tax assessor/collector’s building first opened its doors in 1901.
“If you’re comfortable in where you work, you can get more work done,” Sims said. “Go in the county clerk’s building or the tax office, and go ask Cindy Polley or John Bridges to take you around, and they’ll show you (the buildings’ problems).”
Part of the reason the facilities are in the shape they’re in is because they have not been properly maintained, including by their original occupants, the commissioner said, saying maintenance wasn’t undertaken by previous county elected officials in an attempt to keep taxes low - passing costs off to future officials.
Sims also discussed the Wayne McCollum Detention Center.
“The honest truth is, it was originally built poorly (with) poor plans and poor architecture,” Sims said, saying, “The add-on was done poorly, they took an air conditioning system that was made to work on the original structure, they added onto it, and just tried to hook into the original system, so the air conditioner we have is not big enough for the structure.
“For the things done in error, there’s fault for not planning that far enough, but you also elected people telling them, ‘Don’t raise my taxes, don’t raise my taxes, don’t raise my taxes,’ so what you got was what they could pay for,” Sims said.
The current jail was also built in the flood plain, “and we know there’s going to be extra water in Waxahachie Creek (from development upstream), so we decided it was not wise to add onto the current jail,” Sims said.
Wayne McCollum will remain the county’s primary facility, Sims said, noting bond funds would add a new facility with at least 273 beds, though it may be possible to use a “pod-type facility” and get 350 beds without added cost.
With the projected population growth and statistics showing that from 3.2 and 3.6 percent of people are involved with the criminal justice system, the current jail’s capacity isn’t adequate, Sims noted.
At one point last spring, Sims said 512 of the 560 beds available at Wayne McCollum were occupied. Since detention centers are required to keep at least 10 percent of their space available at a given time, the county was close to having to ship inmates to surrounding counties.
The cost of that is about $45-$60 per day per inmate, Sims said, adding inmates’s medical needs represent additional costs to their home county. Additional costs also are incurred to transport inmates to and from their home counties to meet with their attorneys.
With the added space the proposed jail facility would offer, the county should be able to go until “at least 2016” before more space is needed, Sims said.
Although some have advocated building a 1,000-bed jail now, Sims said that given the county’s present and anticipated needs, building a jail of that size - at a cost of about $100 million - is not economically feasible at this time.
Sims also noted the county will be required to have its own juvenile facility in 2010. With the new facility, the county would have options in designating space for that purpose.
Presently, the county sends its juvenile inmates to Greenville, where it costs about $70 per day, not including transport costs, Sims said.
Courts and Administration Building
The other major element the bond would pay for is a new courts and administration building, which along with the jail, would be built in downtown Waxahachie.
Bond funds would be used to construct two of the building’s three stories, Sims said, adding that funds from the justice center settlement would be used to construct the third. Initially, the third floor would be used for storage of county records, which are spread around Waxahachie in unsuitable and water-leak prone facilities, the commissioner said.
The building would house every county office in the old Wal-Mart or around the square, Sims said, adding that the county auditor’s office and information technology department could be moved from the courthouse to the new facility.
Filling the courthouse space then would be the office of the county engineer and the emergency management office.
This would move offices with more foot traffic out of the courthouse, Sims said, saying the courthouse has begun to show signs of constant use after its recent restoration
“At this rate, it won’t last another 100 years before we have to restore it again,” Sims said.
While the county judge and district courts would stay in the courthouse, the need to preserve the historic building as much as possible is an important priority.
“It is a museum,” Sims said.
Moving the emergency management office into the courthouse makes sense because the building is probably the strongest when it comes to potential weather damage, Sims said.
The commissioners are planning on the new courts and administration building to meet the county’s needs for the next 20 to 30 years, Sims said, adding that “knowing how the county works, it’ll be 30.”
If the bond is passed, ground for the new building could be broken as soon as January or February of 2008, he said.
The bond is worth the buildings’ cost of $53.875 million, Sims said. Adding in interest (which cannot be included in the bonds, Sims said), makes the total cost about $80 million over the next 20 years. While for a few years the county would come out ahead by not passing the bond - even with the lease for the old Wal-Mart increasing 40 percent from its present rate of about $12,750 a month - after 2013, paying about $4 million per year for the bond would ultimately save the county around $61 million over the years, Sims said.
Interest rates for the bond are anticipated to be between 4 and 4.5 percent, Sims said, citing the county’s financial health as the reason for the relatively low rate.
“I’ve done meetings like this a bunch of places … and they all want to know: Is it going to be done right? How do we know for sure?” Sims said. “I can give you my word, but you don’t know me, and I can say I can guarantee I’m going to walk through it to make sure it’s done right, but I’m not a construction guy. I’m a farmer by nature. I’ll know if something’s plumb or something’s square, but I don’t know necessarily what’s in it.
“I can wire some lights, I can fix a toilet, but you know, I can’t tell you just how many gallons of water have to run down this way,” he said.
This is one of the reasons the court has approved a Citizen’s Oversight Committee, Sims said, adding that he looked for the committee to include representatives from across the county, from Italy and Ennis, Palmer and Waxahachie, Avalon and Midlothian, Ferris and Bardwell.
“This court is very fearful of another pink building, and they’re very aware they want to make sure this thing is looked at,” Sims said, adding that another measure of quality control can be found in county engineer Joe White.
White, Sims pointed out, didn’t come on with the county until the very late stages of the pink building fiasco and was told not to walk through it because that wasn’t his job.
“Well, Joe White snuck through this pink building one day, and if it wasn’t for Joe White, we probably would have been having offices in that building,” Sims said. “But when he went through it, he went to Joe Grubbs, our county attorney, and said, ‘Hey, something’s not right over there, you better go take a look at it,’ and when they looked and Joe walked through it, they shut the thing down,” Sims recalled.
Because of that fiasco, Sims admits he was apprehensive about bringing the bond issue, but that helping his children avoid dealing with the issue and the high costs the county would incur if it didn’t happen was more important.
“It’s a scary issue, but what scares me more is not being prepared,” he said.
E-mail Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org