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Fannin County Voters to Decide Fate of Courthouse Restoration

For most of the past decade, officials in Fannin County have petitioned the Texas Historical Commission for grant money to help renovate the 128-year-old limestone county courthouse building in the center of Bonham’s downtown square. In June, they got their wish ---- a $5 million commission grant for a restoration project.

But the Fannin County courthouse is in so much disrepair that the grant money covers less than a third of what it would  take overall to restore the courthouse to its original 1888 look (in Second Empire architectural style) and upgrade the building for safety and better use of space.

The total price tag to pull the project off is set at close to $17 million. The county needs $12.5 million in the form of a bond to complete the project. But though the Fannin County Commissioners Court has the power to go to bond for the money, it won’t do so unless county voters tell them they can on Nov. 8.

Voters, says County Judge Creta “Spanky” Carter will decide whether the county will accept the Historical Commission grant or not as a referendum on the ballot. The county has until the end of November to decide whether it will accept the funds, and if voters shoot the referendum item down, Fannin County will become the first in Texas to ever refuse to accept such funds.

Proponents of the restoration project ---- the most vocal being from the Fannin County Historical Commission ---- say the project goes far beyond the “Restore the Grandeur” rhetoric they espouse. More than the aesthetic makeover, says county historical commission member Barbara McCutcheon, is the fact that the old building is unsafe.

“The stairway is too narrow,” McCutcheon says. An emergency crew responding to a fire would need to navigate a single, narrow stairwell that would funnel smoke and heat “like a chimney” toward the upstairs. Anyone unlucky enough to be upstairs during a first-floor fire, she says, would be trapped.

Also, says county historical society president Tom Thornton, the wiring is bad. Both say the windows leak, and McCutcheon points out that the windows passers-by see on the outside façade are just that ---- a façade.

“The actual building does not have windows in it,” she says. “They took those out when they put that façade around the building.”

The façade McCutcheon is talking about went up in 1966. Several in the county find the artificial face of the building akin to the utilitarian block-style buildings that defined Cold War-era Eastern Europe. Originally, the building had towers and a clock; inside there were arches. Carter says. The restoration in the mid-60s was the second for the building, which had to be repaired from a 1929 fire that damaged the clocktower.

Over the years, as time wore the building down, county officials “did some work on it, but they did it like a patchwork quilt,” Thornton says.

Since 2011, Fannin has spent more than $905,000 on maintenance on the courthouse, which is home to most county government employees. The county has also spent another $800,000 on the actual plans for the renovation, half of which is a contingency grant from the state historical commission. If voters deny the referendum, Fannin County will have to pay the money back.

“One of the biggest questions we get is, ‘How is this going to affect my tax rate?” Carter says. “I believe we can do this without raising the tax rate.”

Carter says the county’s taxable value is up about 7 percent from last year, and has been increasing annually for the past few years. The trend, he says, should continue, leaving ample money to pay the bond back, should voters approve the referendum. He also says that the bond would ideally be paid back between 20 and 40 years, hopefully sooner in order to lessen interest fees.

Carter and County Commissioner Gary Whitlock are the main fixtures of a pan-county tour of information sessions regarding the restoration referendum. Though the commissioners can’t officially ask residents to vote yes, they have expended much effort to outline the benefits of the project.

Most who have attended the meetings over the past few weeks seem to be pro-restoration. Whitlock says the question mark is whether everyone is truly behind the project or that those who are against it simply have not come out to the meetings.

“The ones who are against it might not say anything,” Whitlock says. “They’ll just come out and vote no.”

Bill Purcell of the county Water Supply Agency, a county resident, and businessman in Fannin, says he likes the idea of the restoration, but questions whether using taxpayer money from a referendum to fund a renovation project for a building from the Garfield Administration is the best use of public money.

Purcell suggests that a wholly new building, with amenities and modern compliances built right in, would be a better use of money. Such a project would allow build-out if necessary, be set up to accommodate county employees, and cost less to build.

Carter says that a new building might be cheaper at the outset, but likely more pricy later. Overall, he says, a new building could run past $20 million.

Carter says he’s glad that this referendum timed out on a presidential election year because more people turn out for those.

“I’m not telling anyone how to vote,” he says, “but I want everyone who votes to vote on this.”

Voters must be aware that if they vote the straight-party option for elected offices, they could miss the referendum question at the bottom of the ballot.