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Travis County prepares for new courthouse planning

Friday, October 10, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Travis County’s process to create a county campus and courts plan is a slow and methodical, clearly intended to avoid repeating the mistakes that happened with the criminal courts building.

County Judge Sam Biscoe ended a stalemate between Planning and Budget and Facilities Management departments last week by appointing Christian Smith, former executive director of PBO, to lead the planning process. This week, Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes walked the court through the RFQ process for a consultant who would guide work on the project.

In this case, the project will replace an overcrowded and antiquated civil courts building that no longer meets county needs, either space-wise or technology-wise. Grimes noted that the space had been divided and subdivided so many times that it had come to the point where the county was “architecturally abusing” the historic courthouse building.

At the same time that the courthouse discussion was occurring, it became clear the county’s own administrative space downtown was lacking, Grimes said. That has led to a discussion of a possible campus master plan, one that would address both courts and administrative needs in one project.

That’s where the consultant comes in: someone who can help the county come up with a master plan for a facility, as well as a plan to reuse the historic courthouse structure, Grimes said.

The RFQ process has less in common with regular county procedures than it has with city processes. As Grimes explained it, the process allows county leaders to negotiate a “fair and reasonable price” with the best-qualified firm under consideration. Under state law, the process is supervised by the county’s purchasing agent’s office, Grimes said. The county updated its RFQ procedures two years ago.

Grimes also described the process for a scope of work for the campus plan. It will include a statement of work; a statement of objectives; and a list of tasks to be accomplished with each objective. Grimes noted much discussion had occurred among county departments as to how detailed this scope of work should be.

“This is, in my mind, a high-level study to give us guidance on the next phases,” Grimes said. “We are not going to be asking these folks to design a building for us. They will be doing a very high-level analysis of what we need – raw square footage and those sort of issues – but they will be doing the level of architectural and engineering work down the road.”

Once the scope of work is developed, evaluation criteria and their weighted values should be determined, Grimes said. Once that matrix is in hand, the county should determine the most important factors in a possible consultant: experience in planning and needs analysis; the experience level of individual team members; the work plan approach of the team; the time line being set out for the job at hand; and the resources the team will need from the county to do their job.

“I think sometimes we forget that this is a partnership between the contractor and all of us,” Grimes said. “Although we are behind this expert – we’re hiring this expert to do the job – they’re going to have to work with us. They are going to have to meet their deadline.”

Grimes wanted to be clear about her expectations. First and foremost, she wanted all communication during the bid process to come through the purchasing office. She also wanted the documentation required for the bid to be clearly outlined in the RFQ.

Commissioners had a number of questions: how the minority contracting guidelines would be met; whether the potential bidders could be required to attend a pre-bid conference; whether the consultant could be a bidder on the construction project. Grimes said “yes” to the latter, noting that the planning would not necessarily give one firm an advantage over another.

Two commissioners were absent from Tuesday’s meeting. County Judge Sam Biscoe said he would have the item back on the agenda for consideration and final approval next week.

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