TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Members of the Smith County community spoke at a special-called commissioners court meeting Monday about a bond proposal to build a new courthouse.
A vote will be called Aug. 9, according to the commissioners, to determine if the courthouse bond proposal will be added to the Nov. 8 ballot.
“The citizens of Smith County should have the opportunity to make this decision and determine the future of their courthouse,” Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said. “It’s their money and their courthouse.”
The current Smith County Courthouse was dedicated in 1955, and was constructed to house two district courts, two justice of the peace courts, the jail and various county offices. The courthouse currently houses four district clerks, three county courts at law, the district clerk’s office, district attorney’s office, the Smith County Law Library and court staff.
The proposed courthouse plans to accommodate 10 judges immediately with the ability to expand to 14 judges. It also proposes building a 300-car parking garage after purchasing the 200 Ferguson Building.
Click below to see a video of the proposed courthouse.
During initial assessments for courthouse upgrades, the 2005 Tyler courthouse shooting shifted the focus to include security upgrades.
Of the 15 people who spoke in favor the proposal, a former employee of both Smith County and the sheriff’s office said she felt uncomfortable in the courthouse after hearing multiple first-hand accounts of the shooting and watching the long recovery Deputy Dollison from the shooting. She said her friends who came for cases in the courthouse were also uncomfortable since there is no current separate entrance for jurors and witnesses.
She said she made her decision to speak after the recent loss of a Smith County deputy, and that she wants safety for the employees of the courthouse and feels the current structure is insufficient to provide that.
“My daughter was shot and the defendant was walking down and he looked over and snickered,” Lisa Williams, who is in favor of the project for a safe location of the jurors, witnesses and family members, said. “No family should have to go through that where a defendant can just look.”
Williams also said she is a member of Keep Tyler Beautiful, and wants the Rose City to be reflected in a new structure. This sentiment was echoed by members of the historical society who attended the meeting, and said they wanted the look of a new courthouse to reflect Tyler’s downtown.
“I think the funding is feasible but as long-time advocate for historic preservation my concerns are aesthetic,” a woman with Historic Tyler said. “It’s deeply regrettable that we have to lose the few remaining structures on the east side to forward this plan, but I can say with confidence that the result is going to be a beautiful, appropriately scaled and aesthetically pleasing contributing asset to the downtown.”
A task force and prior studies each concluded that renovating the current structure is not a long-term solution to meet the county’s needs given its growth to date. The different teams concluded that building a new structure was the best solution.
In a 2019 presentation advocating for the proposal, Moran said “rising construction costs will cause taxpayers to pay more for the same structure down the road. The courthouse problem is not going away.”
One man at the meeting spoke against voting on the courthouse proposal now, and recommended the project be put on hold due to inflation.
“It’s the Smith County taxpayers who will be footing the bill for this project,” he said. “We live in very uncertain and unpredictable economic times. My concern is what will happen to the tax rate and tax payers in Tyler and Smith County.”
A financial plan for the proposed courthouse was also presented by members with Specialized Public Finance Inc. who said if the plan is approved it will cost a total of $160 million or $179 million if it passes with the parking garage. The amount would be financed in three phases.
“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.”
The full Courthouse Planning Presentation by Fitzpatrick Architects here: