Amid historic heatwave, county employees await courthouse A/C repairs

MARFA — Despite being one of the highest towns in Texas, Marfa has been unable to escape the historic heatwave gripping most of the state. As the whole town struggles to stay cool, county employees have become increasingly frustrated — the Presidio County Courthouse has been long overdue for critical upgrades to an air conditioning system. 

Regular maintenance of the system isn’t cutting it. At the Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting on July 26, Precinct 4 Commissioner David Beebe expressed his staunch opposition to paying a whopping $11,407.50 bill for air conditioner maintenance, considering its ineffectiveness.

Beebe felt the maintenance was a waste of county money when the county had already decided that the air conditioning system was in need of a massive overhaul. “We’ve been spending thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars every year, and it never works,” he said. “It never has worked.” 

The current air conditioning system — a chiller system reliant on water instead of refrigerant — hasn’t been touched since the last major overhaul of the building in 2002. Current building codes require air to be pulled in from the outside, which the courthouse’s existing system doesn’t do. In an era of soaring temperatures and health threats like COVID, county employees are anxious to bring the building up to current standards. 

Last year, the Presidio County Commissioners Court voted to bring William Helm of In*Situ Architecture to town in order to evaluate the condition of the courthouse and jail. “It really is approaching the end of its lifespan, if not already past its lifespan,” he told the commissioners in July 2022. 

Undertaking any renovation project at the courthouse is complicated, given the building’s status as a Texas Historical Commission landmark and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Construction projects may not alter the building’s historically significant finishes and need to be cleared by the proper authorities. 

County Judge Joe Portillo — who has an office in the courthouse himself — was sympathetic to other county employees sweating out the summer at work, but said that the massive price tag associated with any repairs made it difficult for the county to commit to bringing in outside help. 

Portillo said that he felt sticker shock after finding out that Helm’s estimated cost for the renovation of both the courthouse and jail would run about $3 million — the air conditioning project taking up a significant chunk of that change. “That’s a big check, especially when [the county’s] budget is around $3 or $4 million,” he said. 

Another renovation project he hoped to see tackled was the building’s vintage elevator. The courthouse has three floors — people who aren’t able to climb stairs have to use the elevator, which frequently breaks down. “You can make an argument that they’re being denied access,” he said. 

There might be hope on the horizon — Portillo said that the Texas Historical Commission had taken a renewed interest in Marfa, and he hoped to approach the agency for guidance and financial support. County officials will need to make a detailed case for the importance of the upgrades. 

Portillo said that the county was preparing their pitch to the commission. “We already stretch our budget so thin,” he said. “We want to make an attempt to see if we qualify and if there’s any funding available for us.”