Public Education Plays Key Role in Project Progression
Before moving to a temporary home in November of last year, wheelchair users who had business with the Waller County auditor’s office inside the Waller County Courthouse had to enter the split-level building through a converted window. A platform lift then lowered them to the first floor, an elevator took them to the second floor, and another lift lowered them to the entrance to the auditor’s office. Some of the wheelchairs were too big, presenting even more challenges.
ADA-related issues were just one concern of many regarding the 1955 county capitol. Leaky pipes were being repaired with patches, as the prevalent rust did not allow for cutting and replacing. The county discussed possible solutions, including gutting and renovating the courthouse. Then, a 2021 inspection revealed that concrete beams underneath the structure were slowly turning to dust.
As the functionality of the county courthouse was decreasing, the population of the area continued to increase, nearly doubling since 2000. In fact, the latest census reported 56,794 residents, and the Texas Demographic Center’s latest estimates have the population in excess of 63,000 (11.4 percent growth rate). The center projects that the county will house some 115,800 people by 2060.
In the last few years, these circumstances – high growth coupled with a brittle building – begged a host of questions that could no longer be avoided, with the key questions being this: How can the county continue to best provide services?
“When we realized that it wasn’t feasible to renovate the current courthouse, it became imperative that our constituents be involved in the decision-making process because the county courthouse belongs to the people,” shared Waller County Judge Carbett “Trey” J. Duhon III. “To be successful with any public infrastructure project, it has always been our policy to be open and transparent,” he continued. “The public trust is too important to not take that approach. Public perception is everything, and we wanted the people of Waller County to be involved in the process.”
Public meetings are a part of the design and construction process, explained Danny R. Rothe, director of facilities for Waller County. On any given building that is in the design or construction phase, Waller County facilitates monthly updates, critical-decision workshops, or meetings in Commissioners Court. The same held true for this latest project, Rothe stated.
SEDALCO Construction Services and Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, selected by the county to work on the courthouse project, helped develop a presentation including engineering study findings, photos detailing the courthouse deterioration, and sample plans for a new building, which was shared at these meetings and posted on the county website. The meetings were also videotaped and posted.
“We had a good amount of involvement both in person, virtually online, and through social media as well,” Duhon reported.
The county provided information on the cost to finance, and the cost to the county should the finance measures fail and the courthouse were to become inhabitable.
Concerns voiced by the public included the bell tower and the Veterans Memorial in front of the courthouse, both of which were the result of many years of fundraising and planning, Duhon explained.
“We assured folks the design would not negatively affect those items, and we actually moved the footprint of the new courthouse further back on the courthouse square to create a ‘plaza’ area where we could have concerts/events that would incorporate the bell tower and memorial into the design and flow,” he continued.
Others asked if some of the features in the current courthouse could be saved, such as the book-matched Italian marble that comprises the courthouse hallway and entry walls throughout the courthouse.
“That marble today would be very difficult to find,” Duhon noted. “We assured the public we would make every effort to salvage those elements, and I’m happy to report that over the past several weeks we have salvaged at least 500 square feet of that marble, which will be the backdrop for the Commissioners Courtroom in the new courthouse.”
As with every county project, Rothe shared his open-door policy and welcomed those with concerns to visit with him personally.
“I am a proponent of truth and facts,” he said. “I have publicly stated on many occasions that I have an open-door policy, and I’m happy to meet with anyone to review a project.”
It is far better to keep the public properly informed then to have to deal with false information and incorrect statements, Rothe observed. Once a citizen states a false budget amount in some public forum, it’s really hard to erase that comment from the public’s mind and put the cat back in the bag.
Along with participating in public meetings, Rothe made private presentations at meetings of local civic groups and the county’s Economic Development Partnership.
“These are often breakfasts and have been the best way to inform 50-100 people at once,” Rothe stated.
Once the decision had been made to proceed with a new building, Waller County found themselves in the midst of fast-growing inflation rates and cost escalation.
“The Commissioners Court felt it was important to move forward as fast as possible to avoid higher interest rates, so we decided that using certificates of obligation (COs) was the faster route,” Duhon explained. “But again, we engaged the public, explained the situation and various options, and even conducted surveys to gauge public opinion on the approach. Those surveys showed us that 90 percent of citizens were okay with issuing the COs in this instance.”
The Waller County Commissioners Court voted in late 2022 to finance the project, which was estimated to cost $32 million at that time. Since then, rising costs impacting everything from construction materials to contractor services bumped the final price tag to $43 million. The county has money in reserve to bridge that gap, Duhon stated, and the Commissioners Court voted to approve the additional funding.
The four-story courthouse will be home to the Commissioners Court along with the offices of the tax assessor-collector, county clerk, auditor, and treasurer, and will include space for future county departments. The final design incorporates historical elements from the county’s former 1894 Victorian-style courthouse including elongated windows and a pitched roof. The signature bell tower and its bell, which dates back to the late 1800s, and the Military Veterans Memorial will remain untouched.
“This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a new county courthouse, so we have taken the obligation as seriously as possible,” Duhon emphasized. “We are very proud of the process we went through to get the design put together and the positive public feedback we have had through that process, as well.”
The last day of Commissioners Court in the “old courthouse” took place on Nov. 1, 2023. Last year, Waller County purchased the former Julio’s Mexican Restaurant from the Joe Kuciemba Estate, now referred to as the Waller County Joe Kuciemba Annex, to house officials and employees during the construction process. As of press time, demolition of the old courthouse was imminent, and the new building was assigned a tentative completion date of July 2025.
Key Takeaway: Communication Builds Trust
Throughout his nine-plus years as County Judge, Duhon has operated within the confines of this core value: “All power we have is derived and inherent from the people.”
“Making sure people at least have access to accurate and reliable information when it comes to county government so that they can understand why things are done a certain way can go a long way towards increasing public trust,” Duhon articulated.
“That doesn’t mean everyone will always agree on a solution or that many people will even bother to access the information,” he acknowledged, “but it does reflect this core value, which is shared by our Texas forefathers in the Texas Constitution.”
When Duhon became County Judge, he arranged for the live streaming and archiving of Commissioners Court meetings, recommended the expansion of the county website, and increased the use of social media to keep people informed and engaged.
“We have always tried to do as much as we can with our resources so people can be as educated on county operations and processes as they choose to be,” Duhon maintained. “Over time, it has enabled us to show that we follow through on our commitments, and that’s what builds trust between the county and the constituents.”
For more information on Waller County’s courthouse rebuild education efforts, visit https://www.co.waller.tx.us/page/County.CourthouseProjects.