Smith County judge to ask commissioners to call November bond election for new courthouse

Blake Holland's story from Monday night
Published: Aug. 1, 2022 at 6:33 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 1, 2022 at 7:09 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - The Smith County Commissioners Court held a special called meeting on Monday to discuss the courthouse bond proposal, and heard from more than a dozen citizens in support of putting it on the ballot for the November 8 election.

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said he would recommend that the commissioners court call the bond for the November 8 Election, and place both the $160 million courthouse and the $19 million parking garage together on the ballot. The issue of calling the bond will be on the commissioners court agenda for Tuesday, August 9, he added.

“The citizens of Smith County should have the opportunity to make this decision and determine the future of their courthouse,” he said. “It’s their money and their courthouse.”

At Monday’s meeting, there were 15 residents who spoke in favor of the November bond election, while one person recommended putting the project on hold.

Moran gave a recap of the community discussion that has addressed the needs for a new courthouse for the last 23 years.

In 2000, a task force of 50 community members was formed and came up with a master plan that showed the need for a new courthouse, parking structure, sheriff’s administration building and jail. In 2007, a second study by a different commissioners court and different consulting firm showed the need for a new courthouse, along with a jail and sheriff’s office. Since then, a jail bond passed that added on to the jail, (the jail bond is expected to be paid off in 2022), and the jail administration building has also been renovated and paid for with cash.

In 2020, Fitzpatrick Architects designed a new courthouse after dozens of community and public meetings were held by the county judge and commissioners court. The projected cost of those same designs has seen inflation in the last couple of years, bringing the estimated cost from $125 million to $160 million for the new courthouse, with an additional $19 million for a parking structure.

The projected tax impact for the courthouse and parking structure would be 3.67 cents, resulting in an increase on tax bills of $73.40 per year for a $200,000 home.

The current courthouse, built in 1955, was planned for two courtrooms and now holds seven. In 1950, Smith County’s estimated population was 74,701, which has grown to 233,479 in 2020, according to the latest census.

The plans for the new courthouse include security features that the space of the current courthouse does not allow.

“The building blocks for this bond project are safety and security,” Moran said, adding that about 50 percent of what the county does is law and order.

The location of the planned courthouse, on the east side of the square, was chosen by stakeholders because of its lowest cost to taxpayers, among other benefits, he said.

Multiple studies have been conducted over the past 20 years evaluating potential ways to renovate the current courthouse, but none would address the safety, security and growth needs of the building, Moran said.

Steven Adams, with Specialized Public Finance Inc., gave a presentation on the county’s financial situation, including the road and bridge bonds, phases 1 and 2, and the expected impact of the courthouse bond, both with and without a parking structure.

Smith County has an AA+ Bond Rating, according to the most recent ratings review conducted in July.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Terry Phillips said he understands the need for a new courthouse and he knows it will happen, but is stuck on whether the bond needs to be placed on this November’s ballot.

“Safety and privacy have always been my basis for supporting this,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Neal Franklin said. “We want this community to have a voice on this.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said she wanted to see the issue on the November ballot.

“It’s important for the citizens to actually make this decision … Now is definitely the time to act,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Cary Nix said he couldn’t argue with the need for a new courthouse. “The voters are going to ultimately decide this,” he said.

The deadline to call a bond election for a new courthouse and the associated parking garage is August 22.

Judge Moran and other elected officials are continuing to hold community meetings this summer and into the fall to get the word out about the bond election, and to answer any questions regarding the proposal.

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