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Large cost discrepancy for new county commissioners’ offices

Monday, December 5, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Construction costs of a new office for the Pct. 4 representative of the Travis County Commissioners Court are nearly $40 a square foot more than those of her colleagues, according to information supplied to In Fact Daily by Travis County and contractor HS&A. The offices of the Pct. 1, 2, and 3 seat-holders, as well as that of the county judge, will run taxpayers roughly $89 a square foot. The Pct. 4 facilities, currently occupied by Commissioner Margaret Gomez, cost $125 per square foot.


The court’s new offices are part of a major overhaul of county facilities that will find much of the Travis governmental apparatus moving to a centralized, downtown Austin campus. The court’s new building will be located in a former office skyscraper at 700 Lavaca Street. Each of the court members — aside from Gomez — will be housed on the second floor. Gomez will be on the 15th.


Gomez has already moved to the 700 Lavaca building. Her colleagues are scheduled to follow in August of 2012. Gomez’s office is 2218 square feet, which represents a cost of $277,250. Each of the other commissioners will have roughly 2200 square feet, at a cost of about $195,800. The county judge’s office clocks in at nearly 2600 square feet, at a cost of about $231,400.


The figures for the Pct. 1, 2, and 3 commissioners’ offices, as well as the county judge’s new facilities, represent an average price per square foot dictated by the court to local project management firm HS&A. The Pct. 4 office was designed and finished by the county’s facilities department.


Each of the court members selected where they would office. Gomez told In Fact Daily that she was not aware of the difference in cost when she elected to move to the 15th floor. She added that the deciding vote on the matter took place while she was absent from the court recovering from open heart surgery. Her colleagues, she said, voted unanimously to accept the floor arrangement in August 2010.


In April 2011, the court voted to award the contract for the first three floors of the building to HS&A. They understood at the time that the facilities department would be in charge of the work on the other floors, but they did not know how expensive it would be.


Gomez noted that, at the time, she “thought it was a good idea for us to be on different floors.” She suggested that if the members of the court were all housed on the same floor, they would be subject to a perception that they were violating provisions of the Open Meetings Act. She added that the public could think, “Well, they’re all on the same floor, doing the rolling quorum.”


As for why her space may have cost so much more than that of the rest of her colleagues, she suggested windows could be to blame. “They don’t have any windows, whereas I do,” she said. “That, kind of, I’m sure adds to the cost.”


Travis County facilities department head Roger El Khoury told In Fact Daily that there is another reason. “It’s a very small project,” he said, compared to the effort that was managed by HS&A. El Khoury said that “economy of scale” allowed HS&A to offer the county a better price.


HS&A is responsible for the renovation of the basement level and the first and second floors of 700 Lavaca. According to El Khoury, that represents somewhere between 62,000 and 63,000 square feet, much of which needed to be reconfigured. El Khoury’s department inherited the remainder of the building, from its third to 15th floors. Although Travis officials will occupy some of that space, the county also plays host to several current tenants — offices where no renovation work will be immediately completed — on those floors.

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