By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – It's only a matter of weeks before the new Bell County Jail opens its doors – but it won't be the new kid on the block for long.
During its construction, the builders of the new jail integrated the buildings so each could function physically linked to one another, aiding prisoner transfers to the district court building, which was finished in 2006. Those two projects represent a long-term effort by the county commissioners court to consolidate all the county offices into one campus.
The final piece of the puzzle is a $21.5 million project housing the remaining daily county operations.
The heaviest use will come from the county court operations and document storage for county clerks and records.
The massive growth in the past 20 years has caused the county to find office space when court operations increased due to unforeseen expansion.
The county's population peaked at more than 250,000 at the start of 2008 with facilities designed in the 1980s for less than half that number.
The Bell County Commissioners Court has been moving forward with the county courts project in the past year as the new jail took shape, awarding bids for the project architect and construction managers at the end of 2008.
The new courthouse will house five additional courtrooms for the misdemeanor county courts, attorney and clerk offices, which will replace the current facilities in downtown Belton on Second Street and allow a majority of county operations to be located in one complex.
Although that's not the sole major project in the works for the county, it's the only one which will break ground this year, said Commissioner John Fisher on Saturday, who had been hoping to move forward with an upgrade to the Expo Center to double its capacity.
In November, county and state officials listened to the formal feasibility study of a massive expansion to the Bell County Expo Center, which would more than double its size and capacity.
But unlike the county courts project, the Expo Center expansion proposal remains unfunded and has been stuck in neutral since the commissioners first publicly proposed the project to area city councils more than a year ago.
And that might not come through until the middle of summer when the legislative session is half over, Fisher said.
So it will just have to wait.
"We won't start it until we have funding," he said. "I don't think that will be an '09 project. Though we would like to get started on it ... a lot more needs to happen, drawings and architectural designs have to be done."
The county first has to get an approval from the state before it can allocate the estimated $15 million project cost since the project is expected to be funded by a 2 percent bump in the hotel/motel tax.
Killeen hotel and motel owners who didn't want to see their taxes go up for something in Belton were not too thrilled about the proposal more than a year ago – hence the feasibility study.
But it came back positive on nearly all fronts, so County Judge Jon Burrows said a 2 percent increase in the hotel/motel tax just makes sense as the best funding tool because it benefits the whole county.
"This is a mechanism that would allow this expansion to occur with basically a user fee," Burrows said. "Fund with 2 percent hotel/motel tax ... if the average cost in the area is about $80, the cost increase would be $1.60. The costs in Austin are over $100, so this could occur without people (choosing a different area because of a rise in cost). This is an industry that is already here.
"We have the potential for an increase in the revenue and the quality of life."
Contact Justin Cox at email@example.com or (254) 501-7568.