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The People's Courthouses

Since 1999, dozens of county courthouses — some dating to the 19th century — have been spruced up with the help of state funding, and workers have uncovered old artwork or other historic features. But advocates fear that the renovation program will be yet another casualty of the coming biennial budget shortfall.

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At the Lynn County courthouse, the spiral staircase where guards used to lead inmates down from cramped top-floor cells to the courtroom is closed off. The wooden courtroom chairs — with rods underneath the seats for men to hang their cowboy hats are gathering dust. The electrical wiring and plumbing need an upgrade.

The building, which dates to 1916, is one of 15 courthouses around Texas hoping soon to receive renovation funds from the state government. Through a popular program established in 1999, the state has already awarded $227 million to fix up historic courthouses around the state, a few of which even predate the Civil War. But advocates of the program fear that funding will get slashed next spring when lawmakers confront a budget shortfall that could be as much as $25 billion.

"With the deficit we've got, I don't know — I'm worried," said H.G. Franklin, the Lynn County judge, who is seeking about $5 million from the state for his courthouse.

The elegant Lynn County courthouse has a rich history. Around 1937, an inmate was being led from his cell when he seized a pistol from the deputy sheriff's pocket and shot him dead. The marble wall is still stained with blood (the preservation workers will not blot that out). The upper-level seating area of the courtroom has been closed off but will be reopened after the renovation — even though few events in the withering town of Tahoka are likely to fill the room. The aluminum siding on many courthouse windows will return to its original wood.

The renovations aim not only to restore the original architecture, but also to modernize the buildings' systems. Electrical wiring is a big one — indeed, part of the impetus to start the program came after the Hill County courthouse, a Victorian building dating from 1890, burned down in 1993, with faulty wiring the suspected cause. Security, asbestos-removal, handicapped access, and more energy-efficient lighting and windows are also important, said Stanley O. Graves, the director of the courthouse program at the Texas Historical Commission. Some courthouses, like Lynn County's, are looking at geothermal heat pumps to provide their own heating and cooling.

But workers fixing up the courthouses have sometimes found old artwork or other historic features. At the Red River County courthouse, originally opened in 1885 in Clarksville, workers removing paint from the walls discovered old gold-leaf stenciling above the judge's bench that read, "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness."

On another courthouse, Graves said, enormous oak-paneled doors were discovered during the renovation. And in a third courthouse, in Cameron County, workers digging around the building discovered an old cemetery. The locals had thought, wrongly, that all the bodies had been moved.

"There have been lots of stories about things being uncovered," Graves said. He noted, too, that once a courthouse has been spruced up, it often attracts more local businesses back to the downtown area — a rare boon for struggling county seats. Franklin hopes that the Lynn County courthouse, whose surroundings include a few shops and diners, but also plenty of boarded up storefronts, will have similar luck. "Just about any judge I've talked to says it's really helped their town," he said.

The courthouse program, administered by the Texas Historical Commission, was signed into law by Governor George W. Bush in 1999. His wife, Laura, was and remains a big proponent of the work. Speaking at a historic preservation conference in Austin this week, Laura Bush noted that the old courthouses contain rich Texas lore — from the horned toad known as "Ol' Rip" entombed at the Eastland County courthouse to the stonemason in Ellis County who, the myth goes, carved his sweetheart's features into the stone and made her uglier after she rebuffed him. As for the 1930 Midland County Courthouse, whose fate is up in the air with a larger courthouse just constructed, Bush noted that she frequented its basement as a girl because it housed the local library. Texas has at least 234 courthouses that are at least 50 years old, Bush said. That is far more than any other state, and the buildings often remain the architectural highlight of their towns.

So far, state money has helped refurbish (or partially refurbish) 82 courthouses, but the state does not shoulder the entire financial burden of retrofitting them. Counties provide at least 15 percent of the total cost — and outside groups, like nonprofits, may help. Counties also spend between $20,000 and $100,000 to draft renovation proposals, Graves said. The Lynn County building is one of 15 that will be hoping for funds in the next round, and many more counties have yet to complete proposals.

A few counties, however, can't (or choose not to) scrape up the money to supplement the state donation. Even for places like Lynn County, where Franklin's eyes gleam with excitement whenever he discusses the courthouse project, finding money is a challenge. "We've been for several years trying to put money aside for the match," he said. Much of it will come from property taxes. The state's contribution is capped at $6 million — not nearly enough for large projects like the Harris County courthouse, whose renovation should be finished next year at a total budgeted cost of $66 million (though it is expected to end up under budget).

The amount of state funding could also fall next year. In 2007, the courthouse preservation program received $62 million for two years. In 2009, the program got $20 million after requesting $80 million. This year, aware of the looming state budget shortfall, Graves' group is asking for only $20 million for the courthouses — and whether it will get that amount is up to the Legislature.

"It's certainly much lower than the need," Graves said, noting that he could easily justify a $50 million to $60 million request. So far, the more than 8,500 renovation jobs for the 81 courthouses that have already received funds have gone to Texas firms, he said.

Meanwhile, other states have taken notice of Texas' program — by far the most extensive of its kind nationally. Five years ago, Graves met with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who expressed interest in developing something similar. Other states that have reached out to Texas for information on courthouse renovation include Georgia, Illinois and Oklahoma, though the current economic doldrums make it harder to start new programs.

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