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County commissioners approve report concerning the next 20 years

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 by Austin Monitor

County commissioners approved a baseline of parameters for the proposed downtown county campus last week, a precursor to decisions ahead that Special Assistant to the Court Christian Smith has described as being “want versus need.”


The current phase, the initial report from Broaddus & Associates, encapsulates a lot of that need. County departments were encouraged to describe, at length, what they would need for the next two decades. But, as Smith told the county commissioners, the reality is that those needs would have to fit within a budget the county can afford.


“This is a needs assessment. This report is what the collective wisdom of officials has resulted in,” Smith said. “These are the needs, the ideal set of outcomes in order to meet our responsibilities, and that’s really what Phase 1 is about.”


This initial report from Broaddus & Associates, presented by Stephen B. Coulston, is the first, or “want,” phase of county government. In an overview before county leaders this morning, Coulston outlined the horizon on space needs for county government through 2035, with consideration given to the courts and to general government as it might exist two decades from now in Travis County.


Which is to say, Phase I is the ideal. Phase II, meanwhile, is what the county can afford. Smith described it as “needs meeting reality.” There may be a need for 10 courts, Smith said, but current funding is for 8 courts in 2015 and 2 more in 2017. That’s reality.


Commissioner Ron Davis, in particular, was agitated by the report, suggesting the consultant ought to put more time into the requirements of county government, looking at those duties mandated by law. But, as Smith explained, state law typically only prescribes an area of need the county must address.


It doesn’t dictate, for instance, the number of criminal courts necessary to meet a county’s need, so it ultimately comes down to a decision from the commissioners court on what’s needed.


Coulston had discussed, in a work session last month, the specific growth trends for civil and criminal courts in Travis County. This week, he also adjusted the analysis for general government, noting the projected annual growth in various departments in his estimation of anticipated space needs.


Growth was projected to be modest in all departments annually, with Facilities Management showing the highest amount, yet still at an annual rate of less than 2 percent. Some departments, such as Purchasing, the Treasurer’s Office, and Transportation and Natural Resources, were projected to have negative growth.


Coulston noted that department growth mirrored population growth in the county. After 2015, however, it was still unclear whether growth trends would remain robust. Those post-2015 projections are based on state demographer statistics.


Though projected staff growth in the general government sector between now and 2035 sometimes climbed higher than 50 percent, in many cases such growth would not result in a huge number of additional employees. For instance, the size of Health and Human Services might double, from 59 employees today to 118 in 2035, but that’s still a fairly modest gain over two decades, especially when considering space needs.


The Purchasing Department, by comparison, was expected to grow from a current staff of 30 to 53 in 2035. The Planning and Budget Office would go from 16 to 31 employees. The size of Criminal Justice Planning would more than double, from 10 to 24, and Records Management would jump from 17 to 26 staff members.


At the higher end of the scale, Transportation and Natural Resources was expected to grow from 121 to 219 staff members, an 81 percent increase over more than 20 years. The County Auditor’s department would grow from 77 to 146, Facilities Management from 123 to 244, and the County Attorney’s Office from 83 to 137.


“I need to remind the court all the purposes of our staff projects outlined today are not for budgeting or planning purposes. They are to help us with programming needs,” Coulston said. “The actual numbers are going to fall into your capable hands, as you move forward, year by year.”


The adjacencies matrix indicated which departments should probably be housed close together. For instance, it makes sense to have the Commissioners Court and the Planning and Budget Office in the same building. On the other hand, the Commissioners Court doesn’t need to be near, say, Parks Permits or Land Use Planning Permits. These are the kinds of decisions that can help limit the construction of 30-story buildings, Coulston said, something already difficult in the downtown area.


The commissioners, with the exception of Davis, agreed to the initial findings of the report, which will be used in the subsequent programmatic phase.

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