Texas Historical Commission (THC) executive director F. Lawrence Oaks met with citizens of Blanco County on Friday, October 26, 2007, to explain the situation that has led to the county receiving a $70,000 fine.
The county commissioners voted unanimously to pay the fine, then $80,000, at their July 3 meeting. The fine comes from the replacement of historic windows with new vinyl windows on the county courthouse in Johnson City. A hail storm earlier in the year broke most of the glass on the north and west faces of the building. The commissioners voted to replace all the damaged features with new vinyl windows that closely resemble the historic ones.
"The state has great courthouses," said Oaks at the meeting Friday. "No other state in the country has as many." Many of the historic courthouses are still in use, and people visit them as part of heritage tourism. In the 1970s, many were torn down. The legislature passed a law requiring counties to consider other options before demolition or moving the buildings. State law says that the Texas Historical Commission must be consulted for changes made to courthouses.
The Texas Historical Commission was informed that Blanco County's courthouse was damaged by hail and the windows were being replaced. Oaks said the agency attempted for two weeks to contact the county about the work, but officials were unavailable. The agency then contacted the Attorney General's office, which informed them that the new vinyl windows had been installed.
"We don't feel that we have violated the statute," County Judge Bill Guthrie said in an interview on Monday. "We actually consider what we did repairs. All we took out was the wooden sash piece and the glass."
THC was informed that the county was doing repairs to the windows, Guthrie said. In fact, the money to repair the windows was budgeted before the hail storm. "When the storm hit, we had to do something immediately. It wasn't that we didn't return their calls; they were told that we had plans to repair the windows."
Most of the glass was already broken from the storm, and the rest of the windows' features, including transoms, are still there. The vinyl windows are colored to look like the previous wooden features and have the appearance of split panes. The county attempted to copy the wood look as closely as possible. There is very little difference in how the new windows compare to the old, Guthrie said.
"It's a real misconception in my mind," Guthrie commented.
A representative from the agency came through Johnson City and saw the work had been done, the judge said. The county hired an attorney from a law firm in Austin to communicate with THC. THC suggested entering into mediation through the AG's office. "It's unfortunate that we got there," said Oaks, "but we need a way to have a good outcome. We're supposed to be talking; we didn't talk." Blanco County broke the law when they didn't do the consultation, added Oaks.
"The [commission's] position is: We never want one penny of a fine," Oaks explained. "When you break the law, the only remedy is a fine. Unfortunately, even when a fine is paid, it goes to the state, not the Texas Historical Commission or a preservation fund. It's a waste of money. We had a mediation. We made it clear that we don't even remotely want [the county] to have a fine." The county has a great building, Oaks pointed out, but the officials made a decision to replace a significant part of the building: the windows. THC's goal is to figure out a way to get the wooden windows back into the building.
Oaks called the new, vinyl windows highly inappropriate for the historic courthouse, and that the wooden windows--rehabilitated--could perform better and more efficiently than the new ones.
Judge Guthrie said his view was that going back to single-hung, single-pane windows wouldn't help keep down energy costs over the double-paned, energy-efficient vinyl windows.
After mediation through the Attorney General's office, Blanco County officials were presented with two options. The first option was to pay the $80,000 fine and safely store the historic windows, which are now in a warehouse, for 10 years. This would allow the windows to be rehabilitated in the future and installed back into the building. The second option was to rehabilitate and reinstall the historic windows over the next four years. This would give Blanco County an edge in the competition for grants from Texas Historical Commission, said Oaks. Every two years, the agency scores historic courthouses and gives out grants from a fund specially earmarked for restoring those buildings.
The grant is an 85%/15% split, with the state providing 85% of the funds and the county providing 15% matching. Half of the county's match could be in-kind services, and, Oaks stated, the money used to place the historic windows back on the courthouse could be counted as part of the county's match.
"It would probably make it more difficult if the county were to pursue the grant," Judge Guthrie said of the new windows. "We've been pursuing the grant since the latter 90s" and haven't been in the top group, even when the courthouse had the historic windows. One reason the Blanco County Courthouse hasn't been selected for a grant might be because it has been maintained all along, and is in better condition than it was even 10 years ago, and in better condition than a lot of other courthouses.
"We don't want to lose sight of the fact that we have to use that building," Guthrie stated.
In order to pursue the grant for restoration, the courthouse hired a firm to draw up a master plan to be submitted to the THC. The plan cost thousands of dollars, reported Guthrie.
"We've been in the pot since then," the judge said, "but we've never been one of the 'lucky' ones to be picked. I disagree with Oaks' view that the grant is the right thing to do. It appears that they dangle a carrot; we have to pay a match on that grant." THC doesn't pay for the county office to relocate, and other expenses, during restoration, as well as when the grant money runs out and restoration must continue, said the judge.
"I view it as being a carrot," Guthrie reiterated. "Once you bite, you're into it and there's no backing out."
Menard County received a grant from the Texas Historical Commission to restore their county courthouse, said Menard County Judge Richard Cordes. An architect made a cost estimate, which was then submitted to the THC. Menard was approved and received the money; the bids, however, were higher than expected.
"We did about 90% [of the restoration] and applied for a second phase to get the rest of [the money]," Judge Cordes reported. The grant was approved for $2.5 million and the project wound up being a little over $3 million. "We toned it back down and put some things on hold until we could apply for the second time around." Cordes said he hasn't had any problems with the agency, but the decision on whether Menard gets more money will be made by THC in January.
"Everything went really good," Cordes said. "This courthouse really came out nice. Everyone has complimented."
"There's no doubt that they're beautiful buildings," Guthrie concluded. "We just have to weigh, financially, what we're putting into it. We have a very conservative court. The vinyl windows were inexpensive and energy-efficient. We can't see that we've changed the appearance of the building."
"I don't see anything wrong with what [the commissioners] did," said George Byars, Jr., who is chairman of the Blanco County Historical Commission. "The courthouse needed new windows. I don't agree with all the pushing and shoving."
Presented with the two options, Blanco County Commissioners voted to pay the $70,000 fine as it would be cheaper than restoring and reinstalling the historic windows. THC later realized that the Attorney General's office would have to approve the result of the mediation through court action, and the paperwork will be ready in the next couple of weeks.