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Commissioners put Civil and Family Court back on front burner

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Travis County Commissioners Court brought plans for a proposed Civil and Family Courthouse back into focus yesterday. After several months of Commissioners Court silence, the potentially costly, and much discussed project is back on the agenda.


The proposed site is at Third and Guadalupe streets; it was purchased with non-voter approved bonds in 2010. Plans, though incomplete, are expected to run between $250 and $350 million. Currently, the courthouse is at East 11th and Guadalupe Streets.


If commissioners elect to proceed with a public-private partnership, Travis County’s portion of the construction bill is expected to be roughly $205 million. If county officials decide to go with a traditional approach, construction could cost the county as much as $343 million.


This past August, the Travis County Civil and Family Court House Recommendation Committee recommended the county proceed with a public-private partnership, and finance its estimated $205 million portion with bonds that don’t require voter-approval. This money would, nonetheless, cost the average taxpayer about $70


Days later, Commissioners Margaret Gomez, Sarah Eckhardt, and Karen Huber told the Statesman that they preferred the project be approved by voters, through a traditional bond election. Though Huber’s seat was subsequently filled by Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, he has also stated a preference for a voter referendum for the project.


County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Ron Davis have remained silent on their preference so far.


Yesterday, Eckhardt raised the question of whether they had even agreed that the court was needed.


“It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some question about the need,” said Biscoe. “It would surprise me if more than three of us would vote that it’s not needed.”


Daugherty said that he didn’t need an additional briefing to get up to speed on what had transpired prior to taking office.


“For the record, I think this community needs a new civil courthouse. I’m willing to say that openly. And I think it’s way beyond time for us to find a way to get this thing going,” said Daugherty.


“I think that we are to the point where each week there needs to be some part of this on the agenda to discuss and deliberate,” said Biscoe.


Biscoe continued that there should probably be a vote on whether or not to proceed with the project, and a deadline on finalization of a project advisory committee as well. The county hoped that this committee would be about 20 people. Currently, only 6 spots have been filled. Biscoe asked that a deadline for this committee be set, and hoped the search would be expanded to include average voters.


Eckhardt pointed out that that county has already spent 3 years and almost $2 million on a contract to look at space issues for the county and one year and about $500,000 on an Ernst and Young report on the project.


“We have developed a lot of information,” said Eckhardt. “What I’m struggling with is what additional information and expertise do we need to pull together to make the threshold determination of whether or not we need this additional courthouse capacity.”


The next question to address, said Eckhardt, would be the method of financial delivery.


“I don’t know if there’s any way to get around investing additional funds in order to prepare for a voter referendum on it,” said Biscoe. “Based on what I read in the Austin American Statesman, the majority of the court does prefer the voter referendum. But in order to that and have a chance, you need to do quite a bit of work in advance, so that you can talk specifics when you look at the price. It looks like we’re looking at $250 to $350 million no matter how you go. So when you look at that big number out there, voters will think that you’ve done due diligence.”


In that case, said Gomez, it was important to make clear that the county was just investigating possibilities, not making a commitment to the project, “much less whether it’s P3 or design build.” Gomez noted that, by law, commissioners could not campaign for or against bond projects.


The commissioners ended with a promise to discuss exact agenda language for next week tomorrow. They also requested a briefing on the project, in part to refresh their memories on all that has transpired so far. The commissioners court is expected to vote on putting out a request for services for advisors on Feb. 12, and a decision on the delivery method by Aug. 2.

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