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Travis Court seeks courthouse partnerships, consultants

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A divided Travis County Commissioners Court decided Tuesday to move forward with two solicitations designed to get external input on a new civil and family courthouse complex. The first call will go out as a request for information about public-private partnerships, a method that the court will examine as an option for courthouse construction. The second will look for a qualified third party consultant to advise the court on its construction options and potentially serve as a project manager for the effort.


The action came over the objections of Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber and Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez. Both expressed concern that the solicitation process is moving too quickly. “We’ve had very limited external input” on the solicitation “that’s going out,” said Huber. “We don’t have a team together. I don’t know how we would even write a scope of services for this project without going after our financial expertise and our legal expertise.”


Huber’s and Gomez’s hesitations came against the backdrop of a presentation by County Auditor Susan Spataro. In it, Spataro detailed a series of fact-finding discussions Travis County officials have had with courthouse building teams in Brooklyn; Long Beach, California; and Mecklenberg, North Carolina.


Spataro used the Mecklenberg facility to illustrate what she sees as key goals for Travis County. Though that building was not built through a public-private partnership, she said, the process Mecklenberg officials went through could be a model for Travis County.


“All three of the courthouse projects and the people that we talked to, that was one of the most important points that they made: You need to have a very clear definition of what you want … you have to be able to communicate that very clearly to whomever you contract with,” Spataro said.


Spataro noted that the efforts in Long Beach and Brooklyn represent the only public-private courthouse construction project arrangements to date. She told the court about the vastness of the Brooklyn facility and the attention that its designers had paid to how patrons of the court would move around the building. She added that though the Brooklyn building hosts both private and judicial tenants, there is a clear separation between the two.


“If you were going to the family court, it really looked like that was the only entrance to the building,” said Spataro. “There were separate mechanical systems and they all went up to the floors on which they were located. The commercial was on top.”


At last week’s meeting Huber and Gomez had expressed reservations about the speed with which the court would move on the project in light of the poor outcome of the work on the Travis Criminal Justice Center (see In Fact Daily, April 14). But County Judge Sam Biscoe argued yesterday that it was time to move.


“There will always be questions,” he told his colleagues. “I don’t know that we ought to be comfortable doing nothing for the next 60 to 90 days.”


Just before the vote, Huber again expressed her frustrations with the solicitation process. “I’d just like to say, we will be getting responses from the people who want to do business with us. They will be telling us what we want to hear,” she said.


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt agreed. But she also said it is important for the county to solicit “outside expertise on a parallel track … in time to evaluate those responses.”


Eckhardt, Biscoe, and Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis voted for the solicitations. Huber and Gomez voted against.

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