McLennan County has lined up a new Base where jury trials can resume, but the cost of reopening the criminal justice system in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is going up.
Unless current emergency orders are extended because of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, jury trials are set to resume in early April. That date easily could change, as it has several times before. However, McLennan County officials, including judges, the district clerk and public health officials, have been planning for months how best to resume jury trials while still observing social distancing and other safety protocols.
McLennan County commissioners approved a contract Tuesday with the McLennan County Fair Inc. board to lease the new $32 million multipurpose facility known as The Base for $2,500 a day or $10,000 a week to conduct jury selection and potential trials.
County officials had scouted out the Waco Convention Center to conduct the voir dire, or jury selection, process because no courtrooms at the McLennan County Courthouse or in the courthouse annex provide enough room for large jury panels to practice social distancing.
The Base, on the Extraco Events Center grounds at Lake Air Drive and Bosque Boulevard, will offer 80,000 square feet and enough room potentially to conduct jury selection for three trials and then play host to a district court trial and its 12 jurors, District Clerk Jon Gimble said. County Court-at-Law trials, which have six jurors, could move upstairs in the courthouse to the larger district courtrooms, giving them more room for spacing out the jury.
By contrast, the Convention Center would have provided room for two voir dires at once, but no place for trials, Gimble said. The contact approved Tuesday stipulates that the county will not be charged the rental fee if court officials decide to cancel a trial by the Friday before the Monday dates.
Since there were no jury trials in the county after March last year, Gimble said the county only spent $91,000 of $240,000 budgeted last fiscal year to pay jurors. Gimble suggested the county could use some of that money to offset the additional cost of leasing The Base.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones abstained from the vote, questioning why the county would pay to lease a building it owns.
“We own it,” Jones said. “We levied the tax. I guess we just see it differently. I question why we would pay $10,000 a week to rent a building we own and just built.”
Voters approved a venue tax in 2017 to fund the construction of the new building and other Extraco Events Center improvements. The venue tax comes from hotel and car rentals, generally not from residents of the county.
Wes Allison, president and CEO of the Extraco Events Center, said there is a difference between property taxes and venue taxes. Venue taxes take their name from the fact their use is limited to a specific project that provides a venue for sports and community events, in this case The Base, operated by the events center, and other projects on the fairgrounds and surrounding public properties.
“All those projects were voted on in 2017 and are being built with venue taxes,” Allison said. “The operation of that building takes money. It doesn’t operate for free, and ultimately, because we are separate from the county, we lease the facility from the county, and all those expenses are on us.”
“Substantial completion” of The Base, named as an acronym for the business, arts, sports and entertainment events it is designed for, is set for March 10, Allison said. If jury trials resume April 5, the events center might have to lease additional chairs to handle the group of potential jurors, but The Base will be ready, he said.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Patricia Miller questioned why the contract calls for spending up to $12 for lunch for each of the 150-200 members the jury panel and up to $24 each for lunches for those selected on juries.
The county traditionally does not buy lunch for those summoned for jury duty and only rarely buys dinner for jurors when deliberations run long after normal business hours. The county bought lunch for the jury each day in the trial of Jacob Carrizal, a motorcycle group leader in the Twin Peaks case, but that was for security reasons, court officials said.
Gimble said county officials, in consultation with public health officials, decided it would be best to furnish lunch for members of the larger jury panel during the selection process so they would not disperse to multiple lunch venues and increase potential exposure to the coronavirus.