Harris County taxpayers are spending millions for a newly renovated, state-of-the-art meeting room for the Commissioners Court according to records obtained from the Harris County Engineering Department.

Commissioners first proposed the idea of a new courtroom in 2019 after an increase in public interest and attendance of court meetings. At the time, County Engineer John Blount said the courtroom could be designed in four to six months and completed a year later. It’s been four years since the first consideration.

The current 9th floor facility holds 90 members of the public, leaving many turned away on days when public interest is high. The new room will hold 220 and will be on the first floor of the county administration building. 

In addition to more capacity, court members said that they should make the switch for comfort. 

Prior to Judge Lina Hidalgo taking the helm, Commissioners Court meetings typically lasted an hour, but since she has taken office they often exceed five hours. Hidalgo said the new courtroom would signal to the public that their involvement and participation is encouraged by making it more comfortable for them during the long meetings. 

When Commissioners first discussed it, then-Commissioner Steve Radak called the idea an “absolute waste of money.” Nonetheless, the court decided to move forward with the project. 

The short timeline and proposed price have both proven to be incorrect. 

Initially priced at $4 million, the contract was awarded to The Gonzalez Group, a local general contractor, without much fanfare. Since its approval, there’s been little to no public interest in the project or updates from the court but behind the scenes, there have been cost overruns. 

According to copies of purchase orders, the Gonzalez Group has been hard at work, and as the project has been built out the contract was amended no fewer than five times bringing the total cost to more than $5 million. The largest increase came in September 2023 when the contract was amended to add another $500,000 to the total cost. 

The court still has yet to open and isn’t expected to be unveiled to the public until this spring, so in the end, taxpayers could be paying even more for the renovation before all is said and done. 

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.