By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON -- Situated on a 76-acre site on Loop 121 south of Highway 190 in Belton, the new district courthouse for Bell County is quickly starting to take shape.
"I'm surprised, personally, that it will be finished by May (2006)," Judge Rick Morris of the 146th District Court said. "It's on track for us to move into the building by then."
Ground breaking started in January and was expected to last 14 months.
"We're on schedule for completion," Commissioner John Fisher said.
The new district courthouse has been a long time in coming. Two proposed bonds to finance the project were defeated by voters. A $46 million bond was voted down in a May 15, 2004, election. Those funds would have covered a jail and a district court complex not including county courts or the county clerk's office.
That bond's tax impact would have been at 1 cent per $100 property evaluation and would have been 60 percent less than the original 2.5 cents per $100, which was voted down also. The original plan, a $61.1 million complex which would have included a jail, district court, county courts and county offices, was defeated in a Sept. 13, 2003, bond election.
The county commissioners approved more than $27 million in limited tax notes not to exceed $30 million to fund the new building and renovation of the current district courthouse.
The limited tax notes offer a short-term financing for seven years and would not raise current taxes.
Unlike the current building where anyone can come and go and inmates mix with the public, the new building will have enhanced security.
"The new building will have airport type security -- metal detectors and x-ray machines," Morris said.
Everyone coming in the building will go through security and there will be one entrance, he said.
Inmates will be brought from the Bell County Jail to a holding area in the basement and then brought by elevator to a holding cell next to their designated courtroom.
"You won't have a courtroom full of defendants," Morris said, saying that each one will be brought in from the holding cell when their case comes up. "Folks that are confined will not be mixing with the public."
Morris has been in favor of a new district courthouse and has been leading the charge for a new district court as well.
"We outgrew this place a number of years ago," Morris said.
Currently, Bell County has four district court -- 27th, 146th, 169th, and 264th.
The new courthouse will have an additional courtroom that will house the newly created 426th District Court. This past June, Senate Bill 1189 allowed for the creation of a fifth district court that will be a court of general jurisdiction, covering both criminal and civil cases.
Governor Rick Perry will appoint someone to the new judgeship in Jan. 2007.
"A number of lawyers have talked about (who might be the new judge), but it is an awfully long way away," Morris said. "I don't expect to here alot about it until the time gets closer."
Since 1980, Bell County has had four district courts. In that 25-year span, the county's population has doubled.
"The four district judges are not disposing of as many cases as are coming through, which is leading to a backlog," Morris said.
In 2004, Bell County had 12,204 cases added to the docket with a population of 255,736. In comparison that same year, McLennan County's population was 213,517 and had 7,946 cases added, and Williamson County's population was 249,967 with 5,476 added.
SB 1189 will also create a district court in Williamson County as will Brazoria, Cameron, Comal, Dallas, Fort Bend, Hays, Hidalgo, Travis and Webb counties, plus the combined judicial district of Blanco, Burnet, Llano and San Saba counties.
Bell County's population in 2005 -- plus Lampasas County, which Judge Joe Carroll of the 27th District Court covers -- is 275,762. The county has four district judges covering five courtrooms.
The number of cases handled by judges in Bell County in 2004 was 2,780; McLennan County, 2,158; and Williamson County, 1,183. The statewide average number of cases disposed of per judge is 1,893.
McLennan County received a fifth district court that will be effective Sept. 1. Last year Bell County's population was 42,219 more than McLennan County, with 622 cases more cases added.
In 1998, Bell County had 7,867 cases added and 7,028 were disposed of, an average of 1,757 per judge. Bell County district judges include Judge Carroll, Judge Gordon Adams of the 169th District Court and Judge Martha Trudo of the 264th District Court.
Judge Carroll handles one-half of all criminal cases and one-fourth of all domestic cases.
Judge Morris handles one-half of all civil cases, one-fourth of all domestic cases and the entire child protective services docket.
Judge Trudo handles one-half of all criminal cases and one-fourth of all domestic cases.
Judge Adams handles one-half of all civil cases, one-fourth of all domestic cases and the entire tax docket.
Contact Michelle Guffey at email@example.com