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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Courthouse evaluation panel waiting for more information
Thursday, July 28, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano
Travis County continues to grapple with a decision over a potential private-public partnership, as it inches forward with plans to construct a new civil and family courthouse at 308 Guadalupe Street.
The Travis County Commissioners Court approved measures Tuesday that will allow an evaluation committee to move forward with interviewing and negotiating with the top four firms that will advise on the feasibility of such a partnership. However, Commissioners delayed granting the committee access to sealed request for information (RFI) responses that were completed by 21 companies interested in such a partnership.
The documents panelists want to see include the answers to about ten questions designed to gauge interest in a partnership with the county.
“It’s going to delay us, because we’re not going to move forward without doing our due diligence. We’re going to have to look at those documents,” Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes, who supervises the procurement process on the committee, told In Fact Daily. “I have to look at them to be able to do my job.”
The sealed documents are important because the consultants are, in part, basing their proposals on the evaluation of the RFIs.
“I don’t think there is the level of detail that some of these consultants do. And they are basing their fees on that,” Grimes added. “I would like to be able to say, ‘No, it’s not going to take you 800 hours to read these proposals. They aren’t that detailed, you need to price that differently.’ It would give me a better position to negotiate, and know where we are at. That’s why we want to look at them.”
Erring on the side of caution in the midst of an unfamiliar process, the court delayed unsealing the RFIs for at least another week.
“I would rather an RFI-specific agenda item be brought back so that I could have my questions there,” said Judge Sam Biscoe. “Two or three of them are probably legal. The others are more good government, public education, and public relations.”
Despite assurances that they were far from entering into a public-private partnership contract, the court voted unanimously (4-0, with Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt absent) to delay taking action on unsealing the RFIs until Aug. 2.
The consultants now being selected will be exploring financing options, including public-private partnerships, types of buildings that might be appropriate for the site, and the feasibility of different scopes of projects. They will then present these options to the court and public.
Grimes explained to In Fact Daily that the delay was just part of what will continue to be a “fluid and confusing process,” as the county explores embarking on something they have never done before.
It was a sentiment that was reflected in the statements of Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber, who has expressed concerns that the process is proceeding too quickly in the past.
“I want to say I am absolutely 100 percent in favor of building a civil courthouse. I’m going to support this today because I think that it is a cautious step forward. I think we’ve got some good candidates here. But I do say that I still am remaining vigilant because I am concerned about the tightness and the transparency of our process,” said Huber.
The top four firms who will be evaluated are KPMG, Ernst & Young, Jones Lang LaSalle and Cushman & Wakefield.
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