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Commissioners continue debate over new courthouse financing

Friday, May 6, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners’ Court continues to wrestle with how to proceed with the construction of a new civil courthouse. At issue is the process by which the county would fund the effort.


Commissioners’ latest discussion on the matter came at a work session on Thursday. There, Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber continued her attempts to get her colleagues to better vet their process. She was met with resistance from County Judge County Judge Sam Biscoe, who suggested that the court had already voted to move ahead.


That back-and-forth was part of a four-item agenda that also featured an unveiling of the first timeline for the project and a discussion about the county’s potential use of bonds to fund a portion of it.


At their April 19 meeting, court members voted to move ahead with a formal request for information about public-private partnerships, a funding mechanism that the county could select to pay for the project. They also decided to begin the search for a third-party consultant who could advise the county on its options, and potentially serve as an outside project manager.


Huber argued that this was problematic. “I’d just like to say, we will be getting responses from the people who want to do business with us,” she said of the information solicitation at the time. “They will be telling us what we want to hear.”


On Thursday, Huber took another tack. She told staff to research the way that other jurisdictions had proceeded with large-scale courthouse projects. She suggested that the proposed addition of an external consultant that would help the county evaluate the information it gathered with its formal request could be an extra step in the process. “I want to be sure that we don’t add a step in here in getting this person to help us evaluate this (request for information) that then may complicate this next level of process in evaluation whether or not we do the (public-private partnership),” she said.


Biscoe pushed back. He told staff that they should not follow any instructions from Huber that might contradict any action that the court had already taken. He then offered them what must have felt like a reprieve. “Rather than get staff in the middle of that though, I will add an item to the agenda on Tuesday for us to address this and our goal should be to give the team written directions and instructions on what to do next,” he said.


“I can tell you that what I have just heard contradicts my feelings and contradicts what I think has been a vote of the court,” he continued.


Biscoe asked Rodney Rhoades, executive manager of planning and budget, to prepare a fresh draft of a charge that the county’s team will use to guide their preliminary efforts. It will be voted on at Tuesday’s meeting.


Earlier in the afternoon, Rhoades presented the commissioners with a preliminary draft of a timeline for work on the courthouse. As of now, county officials will look to start construction on the project in 2014. Work would continue for roughly 30 months. Under that schedule, the building would be ready for occupancy by early 2017.


Commissioners also heard a briefing from their financial advisors about funding options for the project. Ladd Pattillo and Glenn Opel told the court that if they elect to build the courthouse with a public-private partnership, they might have to finance it with both tax-exempt and taxable bonds. Taxable bonds can cost as much as one-and-a-half to two more percentage points of interest than their tax-exempt kin.

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