Why is the courthouse costing so much?

June 16, 2008 9:42:49 PM PDT
The historic old Harris County civil courthouse is to some the crown jewel of downtown Houston. But we can't find out why it's costing you so much to restore this jewel's shine.

The Harris County records we unearthed show the downtown courthouse was built for just $500,000 in 1910.

"They described it as the finest temple of justice in Texas," said Harris County archivist Sarah Jackson.

In 1910 it was grand on the outside, ornate in and fire proof. That was a big deal back then. Even still, when the plan was put before voters the first time, the people of Harris County turned it down.

"They didn't see a need for it, the lawyers in town were pushing for it," she said.

The second time around voters went for it. But fast forward 100 years, the historic building is showing its age. The tree growing out of the second story stone work is the least of the problems.

Inside the building is been gutted in preparation for a $65 million restoration to eventually house just state appeals courts. Proposals to put county commissioners here or a justice museum were dropped from the plans.

"I am for restoring old courthouses and historic buildings," said taxpayer advocate Bob Lemur. "Anytime a project goes from $30 million to $65 million in 7, 8, 9 10 years something is strange there."

This project, when initially proposed as a renovation in 2003, was supposed to cost an estimated $30 million of your tax dollars. Then $36, then $47 million in 2005 before jumping to $65 million in 2006. Twice the cost for the same project and unlike when it was first built, voters have never approved a nickel of the spending.

"The number is getting higher and higher," said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack.

Why though? Answers in county records are short on specifics. A 2005 memo bureaucratically calls the $20 million jump a redefinition of costs.

County Commissioner Steve Radack blames inflation, increased construction costs and demands of historic preservation.

"I don't recall any projects that ratcheted up that much," said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels. "Again this is a historic building and when you restore historic buildings they go up."

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