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Travis County slow to pull trigger on building new Civil Courthouse project

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Approval of a final plan for a new Travis County Civil and Family Courthouse continued its crooked momentum on Tuesday.


Travis County Commissioners were asked to authorize contract negotiations with the highest-ranked firm, URS Corporation. But they balked at the process, asking for more time and information before approving the negotiations.


In the end, the commissioners voted unanimously to schedule interviews with the top two contractors – URS Corporation and Broaddus & Associates – for next Tuesday. This will give commissioners the opportunity to question both firms in public. Though the interviews will not be broadcast on television, they will be public, in open court.


“I think the court needs to make this decision, and I think the court needs to make this decision with a lot more than 20 minutes of conversation with anybody. This is a huge project,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who went on to explain that though he appreciated the work of the committee charged with evaluating the bids, he wasn’t willing to make a decision based on their work alone.


“A civil and family courthouse is not a very sexy item. The med school is pretty sexy. You didn’t need to put a lot of lipstick on that thing to get it passed,” said Daugherty. “Ninety-five percent of this community never steps into a civil or family courthouse, ever, and they’re wondering why you are going to spend $300-plus million on this project.”


The firms were evaluated by a five-member panel, which was supervised by the county’s purchasing office. The evaluation committee was comprised of one representative each of the county’s civil courts administration, its facilities management department, and its criminal justice planning division. There were two representatives from the county’s planning and budget office. The group recommended URS unanimously.


Though the commissioners were uncomfortable letting that evaluation stand as the final one, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt assured those present that “nothing has been wasted here,” and promised that the recommendations of the committee would be given “great weight.”


“I think, in order to have optimal confidence between this hired expertise and the commissioners court, we should have a presentation from the top two,” said Eckhardt. “I think it would add an additional dollop of confidence and transparency for us to have, as soon as possible, an opportunity to receive a presentation.”


Though she was amenable to the change in the process, Eckhardt stressed the need to move the courthouse project ahead. She explained that the county couldn’t afford a months-long delay, saying, “the time for talking has passed, the time for doing is here.”


The new courthouse, which will be located at Third and Guadalupe streets, is expected to cost between $250 and $350 million. 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. Though the court has agreed to put the financing to a voter referendum, there is much work to be done before the bond election, including determining the method of financing.


Presentations by the company and questions from the commissioners will take place on April 30. URS is up first, at 1:30pm, and the county has allotted somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour and a half for the evaluations.

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