Getting your county business done in San Marcos can be an all-day affair. If you want to renew your driver's license, hit the courthouse annex on the square downtown. If you're getting married, walk across the street to the Records Building for your marriage certificate. Want to register to vote? Drive across town to the trailer holding the elections department. And for any number of other county-related tasks -- such as getting building permits, meeting with a commissioner or facing a county or district judge - be prepared to hoof it all over San Marcos and as far away as Kyle.
'So many people come to the courthouse thinking that everything's here,' County Purchasing Director Cindy Maiorka said. 'We have to direct them all over the place.'
Last week, Hays County commissioners took the first step toward consolidating county offices in what is hoped to be a single Hays County Office Complex, on 8 acres of county land west off of Interstate 35 near the Aquarena Springs exit. Commissioners voted to hire an architect to look into the planning and design of the building, charging the architect to determine which offices might be consolidated and how much the project will cost.
County employees and residents have complained about the scattered nature of Hays County government for years, and the county's building committee has recently been studying solutions. With the population expected to almost quadruple within 25 years to as many as 359,000 residents, commissioners said the county can't duck the issue any longer.
'With that population comes demand for services,' said Commissioner Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe, a member of the building committee. 'With the growth the county is experiencing, we realized we'd get to this point.'
Consolidating and expanding offices would save the county money in the long run, Ingalsbe and others said. The county would stop paying $7,000 a month in rent on space for its adult probation department, would get some prime real estate on the San Marcos square on the tax rolls (the county pays no taxes for two buildings it owns), and would save money on shared office equipment and a computer network that's not spread all over town.
Most pressingly, the county would get additional space for its cramped district and county courts. With only one district courtroom, trial and hearing delays cost the county because it has to house inmates in its jail for longer than it should.
District Clerk Cecelia Adair said that because the district courtroom is used almost constantly for criminal cases, civil cases are pushed into county, justice of the peace and even the commissioners' courtrooms. 'It would keep us from shuttling around the county,' she said of the proposed complex.
The county would also get offices designed to do what they are supposed to do. Courtrooms and the district attorney's office are located in a strip mall sharing space with an O'Reilly's auto parts shop. County Tax Collector and Assessor Luanne Caraway said she worries about security at the courthouse annex, which has both a front and back door for customers.
Although county employees and politicians get excited about the prospect of a new office building, no one knows how much it would cost or how the county would pay for it. The land, site of the old county hospital, is already county-owned, and the county could put the sale of its existing buildings - at least $ 2.5 million for its three largest properties - toward the new building. But such a project would likely cost millions more.
Commissioners haven't discussed how to pay for construction, but have said possibilities include bonds, possibly voter-approved, or a lease-purchase agreement in which the county would pay off the cost for a number of years before owning the building.
San Marcos resident Janie Alvarez, paying her taxes at the courthouse annex on a recent afternoon, said it will be worth it to have everything in one place. 'Even if it's costing us, we might as well do something good,' she said.
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