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Travis County Commissioners balk on courthouse funding vote

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Hopes for a brand-new civil and family courthouse in downtown Austin hit yet another bureaucratic snag yesterday. Faced with a request from the county’s purchasing officer to hire a consultant to assess the feasibility of entering into a public-private partnership for the project, members of the Travis County Commissioners Court put off the vote to their next meeting.

Faced with the prospect of approaching taxpayers to approve a bond package to fund the courthouse, which could cost $300 million or more, staff asked the commissioners yesterday to approve a Request for Services for an outside consultant to determine if a public-private partnership would be a better way to fund the courthouse, to be built at Fourth and Guadalupe streets.

That consultant would assist the county’s internal team with evaluating responses from development teams in answer to a Request for Information sent out by the county on April 22 to explore the potential of a public-private partnership. It would then be the court’s decision, based on the consultant’s recommendations, to either go the public-private route or stick with a more traditional bond proposal.

District Court Judge John Dietz all but pleaded with the commissioners to agree to staff’s request and move the project forward. Quoting from a letter he and every other district judge sent to the court 969 days ago, Dietz said, “Despite our efforts at ongoing productive conversations with the court, we are troubled that there exists no plan, no design, and no building in progress for the future of our county’s court system. … Respectfully, in our collective judgment, a crisis exists today. … We are at a loss to explain or justify the lack of a plan to move forward.”

Dietz also said that in the current economic climate, asking for voter approval for a $250-300 million project would be a fool’s errand. The RFS process, he said, would allow for an objective assessment of the best way to move forward.

“We are totally out of space and we need your help,” he said.

Unfortunately for Dietz and those other district judges, the court could come to no agreement on the need for an outside consultant. Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez said the process was moving too fast for her comfort. “We have to converse with all the stakeholders, including the public,” she said. “I’ve had the feeling of being rushed and I don’t feel comfortable in doing this in that manner.”

Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber argued the opposite point, saying that the process of trying to get the much needed courthouse built has been moving “painfully slow” but admitting that she is “not comfortable with our internal process … I’m committed to doing it right.”

Asked what her complaints about that internal process were, Huber said the county had not gotten its internal and external stakeholders together, had not assessed the project’s weaknesses and strengths, had not agreed on a single vision for the project.

“We have not done that,” Huber said. “We have jumped in with an internal team, using the resources they have at hand, without knowing what their weaknesses are.”

To Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, Huber’s claims sounded like an argument for why an outside consultant is needed.

“That sounds like a plea for some external assistance because we are not able to do it ourselves,” she said.

To which Huber responded that the county doesn’t know what its weaknesses are yet and therefore isn’t able to determine the best way to improve them.

That answer seemed to rub Eckhardt the wrong way. “We can’t keep asking questions without employing people that are going to give us the answers,” she said.

Eckhardt went on to argue that the county had, in fact, held stakeholder meetings with people who work at the courthouse and who live in the surrounding community. She said the county knows what square footage is needed, what functions the current courthouse is not performing, and what functions the new courthouse will need to perform.

“We are not at square one; we have made some strides,” she told Huber. “But it does appear we need some outside expertise. How can we improve what’s in front of us today? We must move forward for the good of our bench, our bar, and the community as a whole. We can’t keep asking questions while refusing to employ the folks who can give us the answers.”

But the commissioners could not agree to take a vote on staff’s proposal, instead choosing to push discussion until next week’s meeting. In the meantime, County Judge Sam Biscoe said he would be asking for feedback from commissioners on how to improve the language of the resolution on next week’s agenda.

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