A new proposal from engineering firm HOK has the potential to shake the landscape of Kaufman to its core.
The firm has developed a master plan for a 95,000 square foot facility that would replace the current county courthouse located in downtown Kaufman. The new facility, which would be located next to the Kaufman County Correctional Facility, would house all of the county courts, the District Attorney’s office, indigent defense, a small representation of the adult probation office, the district clerk, the Justice of the Peace, and part of the county clerk’s department.
The new facility’s plan is a significantly revised and updated version of HOK’s 2013 plan for a justice center that would have covered nearly 67,000 square feet and cost $19.8 million. However, the bond referendum for that facility was voted down by Kaufman County voters. The new facility, though just a third bigger than the previous proposal, would cost nearly twice as much with its $37.5 million price tag.
Although the proposed facility would stand at a substantial 95,000 square feet, it’s actually a reduced version of the original one drafted by HOK which would have taken up 130,087 square feet. Despite the size reduction, however, the facility as it is currently proposed would still include six courtrooms, one of which the would go unused unless the county’s judicial system expanded to include another district court to go along with the two that it currently has.
In addition, many of the county’s current offices would see a dramatic increase in workspace. The District Attorney’s office, which is currently 6,475 square feet, would nearly double to 11,957 square feet. Meanwhile, the District Clerk’s office, now 2,125 square feet, would almost quadruple to 7,835 square feet.
Curt Parde and Linda Burnauer were on hand at the county commissioners court meeting on July 3 to make a presentation about the proposed facility citing adequate parking, expansion capability, improved security and efficiency, and professional appearance as their chief goals driving the project. If the facility is approved, construction would be scheduled to begin in September 2020 and would be completed in January 2022.
Although precinct 4 commissioner Ken Cates did acknowledge the fact that county voters shot down the county’s previous attempt at replacing the county courthouse, he cited a number of stances supporting his belief that a new facility was something that Kaufman County needed to consider.
“I think it’s really important to establish the fact that there is genuinely a present and growing need for this facility,” Cates said. “The current situation in our courthouse is really just indefensible. The courthouse is essentially wall-to-wall, shoulder-to-shoulder with people. You have prisoners in and out of the facility. You have people involved in lawsuits trying to meet with their attorneys trying to sit on different ends of the same bench. I just think it’s important to note how inadequate our courthouse is for the administration of justice. And it’s only going to get worse as the county population grows. Very likely in the foreseeable future, we will have a third district court which has absolutely no place to go at this moment.”
“We literally do not have room for one person in that courthouse,” County Judge Hal Richards added. “We’ve occupied every closet, every square inch of the basement.”
“It really is just bursting at the seams,” Cates continued. “This isn’t just a want; this is a genuine and true need that this county has to have.”
Judge Richards noted that not only is the current courthouse operating at full capacity without room to expand, but the courthouse’s security vestibule is in direct violation of a state statute that distinguishes the building as a historical marker.
“Years before that security vestibule was put onto the courthouse, our courthouse joined a program that established it as a historic courthouse in Texas,” Richards explained. “There are certain restrictions that the county accepted when they did that. The county added a security vestibule, which was a violation of that. So the county has been under sanction since that time to remove that vestibule and we’ve been unable to figure out how to provide security in that courthouse without the vestibule. We’ve actually been fined once, and we paid that. But we’re still under sanction. The other thing is we are occupying a lot of spaces around the county in sometimes not very good facilities. If we could move these high-security functions out of the courthouse, that would allow us to renovate the current courthouse and bring it up to standards for technology, handicap access and those sort of things. Hopefully we could consolidate a lot of our operations that are in other buildings and we could become a more efficient organization. Since there wouldn’t be any high security functions in that building anymore, people coming in to do their business with the county wouldn’t have to go through that screening process. If we are successful with this bond program, a substantial investment would be made in that building because it’s our county courthouse and it’s sitting in the middle of a really great, newly renovated square.”