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County departments continue spat over who gets space

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The ongoing tension between Travis County’s facilities and budget departments lingered at last week’s Commissioners Court meeting, as commissioners took action on a number of moves intended to free up additional space at the overcrowded Heman Sweatt Civil Courthouse at 11th and Guadalupe.

Two facility items were on last week’s Commissioners Court agenda. The first was the conceptual configuration of a new Precinct 1 building off Springdale Road. The second was a domino of relocations — discussed at a recent workshop session — that would clear space in the civil courthouse using additional space at the county’s facility at 5501 Airport Blvd.

Already, much of the County Clerk’s operations and the tax office have been moved to the renovated facility on Airport Blvd. Under the plan approved by commissioners, the district clerk’s jury management office would join the others and the office would be designed; the district clerk’s microfilm section would be relocated to the former jury management space; and, finally, the Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5 would use the current microfilm space.

As the Planning and Budget Office explained to the Commissioners, its objection was that this series of actions would be done apart from any “bigger picture” facilities’ plan that the county might devise. District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza rejected that suggestion, saying she had waited two years to get in line for more space, had saved the cost of the move from her manager’s budget and that she did not want to wait another two years to get in line to address an already-overcrowded situation.

“We had requested this in our budget last year, and we were told to work with Facilities,” Rodriguez-Mendoza said. “We worked with Facilities. We found the money. I just don’t understand…If we have a problem, we need to work as a team, to come with a solution to that problem.”

The cost of the moves and renovations would be $73,300, of which only $5,000 would come from the Facilities Department’s budget.

Commissioners, for the most part, rejected the arguments of the Planning and Budget Office. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt was the most sympathetic, agreeing that, ideally, it would have made more sense to have a master plan for facilities. Instead, the Commissioners Court was dealing with a two-year plan that – despite the advance notice – still was rather ad hoc in its appearance.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez, on the other hand, said she had been around long enough to know that the county tended to stretch out projects longer than they needed to be stretched out. This space configuration, she said, was a small project.

“We’ve done a lot of moving around of folks around here,” Commissioner Ron Davis said. “Lots of things are changing, and I really think we should be taking care of this.”

Following up on Eckhardt’s comments, Gomez noted that while a long-range plan was best, it also was the duty of the Commissioners Court to make the best use of the space at 5501 Airport Blvd. This was a project small enough to be covered by excess dollars and make some extra room in county facilities.

“It makes room in the crowded courthouse so that residents like the JP in Precinct 5 can have a little bit more room that’s badly needed,” Gomez said.

Commissioners unanimously approved the series of moves and renovations, which should be completed by the end of September.

The new Precinct 1 Office Building, however, will take another year beyond that. Last week’s presentation was the conceptual drawing for the building, which will double the number of square feet for the Justice of the Peace and constable’s space. That space is expected to carry the two departments through the next decade.

Cherry Johnson, the office administrator, urged the commissioners to move forward with the project. When the court moved into its current building on the Springdale property in 1995, it already was overcrowded. This building was necessary, she said.

The current building, on the same site, would stay in operation while construction was being completed, said senior architect Gabriel Stock. Parking also will be expanded for the facility and open space will be available for department use as well as public meetings for the area.

Commissioners approved another $45,000 to be spent on planning the facility. The county will use its own architects but likely will hire an outside structural and mechanical engineer on the project, according to county staff.

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