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Travis Commissioners split over how to proceed with new courthouse

Thursday, April 14, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A split has emerged on the Travis County Commissioners Court about how to proceed with the initial stages of construction for the future Travis Civil and Family Courthouse.


Two commissioners – Pct. 3’s Karen Huber and Pct. 4’s Margaret Gomez – are concerned about proceeding too quickly with the project. Their worries stem from a perceived lack of information about a public/private partnership construction method that will be considered by the court.


County Judge Sam Biscoe and Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis, meanwhile, are ready to move forward. “However the majority of the court wants to go is fine with me,” said Biscoe, “but I don’t know that the public will perceive that we’re making progress if we don’t do something concrete fairly soon.”


In their hesitance about the project, Huber and Gomez cited the much-maligned process surrounding the construction of the county’s criminal justice center. “I think what may have happened 10 years ago is that there was some planning – but I don’t know how much,” said Gomez. “And then it got put on the ballot because there’s always that rush of needing to get it done, and when that occurs you leave a lot of things uncovered.”


At immediate issue was a request for information submitted for the court’s approval by county Purchasing Officer Cyd Grimes. With it, she sought to collect details about how the court might proceed with a public-private partnership, should it choose that method to construct a new Civil and Family Courthouse.


Huber was concerned that any respondents to the county’s solicitation might be too biased. “People are out there educating with this brochure and that brochure and they are people who are involved in the process from the for-profit side in the private sector,” she said. “We don’t need to have our work session be held … by those who are trying to convince us to do business with them.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt initially called for a postponement of the request. However, after the county’s executive session, she offered a compromise that might have moved everything forward. In it, she suggested that the court pursue what she called a “parallel process” by which they would look for information and a third party to vet it all.


“The intention is that we would have an owner representative in time to appropriately evaluate the information that we got from the (request),” she said.


After some debate, she withdrew her suggestion because the posting language of the item would not allow for consideration of the third-party approach. It all seems set to come back to the court next week.


The county purchased land on the south side of Republic Square Park from the Austin Museum of Art in December for $21.75 million. It plans to build the new courthouse there as part of its ongoing efforts to create a downtown campus.

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