The city of Owensboro may hire outside counsel to represent its interests in an ongoing probate court case in Texas that has held up the city's effort to relight the downtown Glover H. Cary Bridge for the better part of a year.
City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Ed Ray on Monday said he intends to find and communicate with whatever legal partners Owensboro may have in Houston. He said he wants to determine why exactly a final ruling has not been issued affirming the terms of a wrongful death lawsuit that was settled in Kentucky earlier this year between the city, state and the Netzahualcoyolt "Nett" Gonzalez family.
The blue bridge has been in the dark since 2013 when decorative overhead lights on the span were temporarily shut off for a repainting project. That delay became more permanent when Gonzalez, one of the contractors painting the bridge, came in contact with exposed wires and was electrocuted.
Attorneys for the city and county settled the suit this spring for $800,000, but Gonzalez was a Houston native and Texas law requires that local probate courts approve the terms of settlement before money can be formally exchanged.
Unfortunately, officials have said, the city's ability to relight the bridge hinges on all litigation involving the Gonzalez death having been settled — so says the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which is responsible for approving any application to do work on the downtown Owensboro landmark.
"I expect to have secured local counsel by the end of the week," Ray said. "I want them to contact the probate court, contact counsel for the Gonzalez family and see what it is we can do to move that thing forward, and, at a minimum get a realistic timeline for a resolution. I want to know if there's a major hang-up, and, if so, what it is, whether nobody's pursuing the case or if the court is just too backed up. No matter what it is, we want realistic expectations."
A staff attorney for Harris County Probate Court No. 2 (where the Gonzalez case is being heard) said in November that Gonzalez's spouse had been named the administrator of the estate in 2014 but that her attorney died, leaving the case's status in doubt for years. In October, however, Houston-based Meredith Law Firm had entered the case and seemed willing, at least to some, to settle it as soon as possible.
But it's been nearly three months since any real movement occurred, and media calls to the law firm have gone unanswered. Now, Ray said, he wants court officials to know that the city has an interest in the resolution.
In the meantime, he said, the city has resubmitted a KYTC application to perform work on the bridge and drafted a contract for the state to consider regarding any construction-related partnerships. The '90s-era lights still on the bridge must be removed, an engineer must design and determine how the new lights will be installed and what they will look like, and then the lights themselves must be installed. It's a hefty job that could come with up to a $750,000 price tag and $15,000 of maintenance work every year.
A similar application the city submitted for work on the bridge more than a year ago essentially went nowhere, Ray said. KYTC officials said ongoing litigation needed to be settled and left it at that. Now, he added, he's hoping whatever legal courses of action are required in Houston and Frankfort may occur concurrently, so as to prep the city commission on bridge lighting solutions as soon as possible.
Part of that includes reaching out to Aecom, a Los Angeles-based engineering firm that purchased URS Corp., the engineering partner the city had used to develop its ideas on bridge lights in the first place. Plus, designs, once they are finalized at the local level, must go before the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers for approval, too.
All in all, Ray said he would like to bid designs on a new set of lights by the spring of 2018.
The only thing left to resolve then, would be paying for those new lights. Ray has said on multiple occasions that tax increment financing district funds ready to begin generating money as soon as next month could be used to pay for the entirety of the bridge lighting project. But ultimately, he said, it's up to the commission to decide exactly when and how much the city is willing to invest.
TIF funds likely won't be made available until the end of 2019, so, should the bridge go online next year, it would likely take a significant amount of money up front. Mayor Tom Watson put a bridge donations line item on property taxes this year, but an up-to-date count on that fund only revealed about $7,500, just 1 percent of what would be needed to fund the project.
And now the mayor says he's most interested in saving the city money and ensuring that those TIF projects that are most in the public's interest — like utility lines or parking garages, for example — are paid for first.
"Politics will probably play a factor in this thing," Watson said. "But I want to see a list of projects the TIF could help pay and have a chance to prioritize those in terms of importance. And I'd really like to have money in the bank before we spend any more money we don't have right now."