Monday, July 22, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Commissioners move on new space for DA despite Daugherty’s objection

Despite eleventh hour pushback from Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the Travis County Commissioners Court is moving ahead with plans to construct a new seven-story, 200,000 square-foot downtown building for the Travis County District Attorney’s office. That a plan that didn’t sit well with Daugherty in light of fallout from District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s April drunk driving arrest and conviction.

Last year, the county purchased prime land at 416 W. 11th street for more than $7 million. The Commissioners Court voted 4-1, with Daugherty opposing, to build the new office building on that land for District Attorney employees now working out of the Criminal Justice Center at 509 W. 11th street. It’s all part of a larger plan to expand the justice center and add new courts. The county predicts that by 2035, it will need more than double the amount of downtown office space it now has.

During the July 16 Commissioners Court meeting, Cyd Grimes, Travis County Purchasing Agent and Roger El Khoury, the county’s Director of Facilities Management, were requesting court approval to move ahead with hiring an architect/engineer to design the new office building and parking structure. But Daugherty wanted to revisit some of his old objections to the project. Plus, he had fresh ammunition to shoot at the venture.

“Let me take one more stab at this… do they need additional space if they don’t have 31 employees,” Daugherty asked, taking aim at the current debacle involving Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit which operates out of the District Attorney’s office. The unit investigates and prosecutes high-dollar, white collar crime in Texas. As a result of Lehmberg’s refusal to resign following her arrest, Gov. Rick Perry stripped the unit of it’s more than $3 million annual appropriation, a move that effectively shut the unit down resulting in layoffs. (Travis County could step up and continue to fund the unit, but it is waiting to see what results from a House Bill filed in the current special session which  would override Perry’s decision.)

“If they don’t have the Public Integrity Unit funded, do they need 200,000 (more) square feet,” Daugherty continued.

El Khoury, a bit flustered, answered, “Well, I need to look into it in more detail…”

“I’m not trying to put you on the spot,” Daugherty interrupted. “Maybe it’s just a foregone conclusion that this is what we’re going to do. I just think that there’s hair on this deal. Quite frankly I’d like to have a little more time and maybe eventually I might get to the point where I’m okay with doing a building down here. I don’t know that I would be overly excited about doing it on $345 a (square) foot real estate which I think is just incredibly overpriced.”

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe appeared only slightly frustrated, reminding Daugherty that the decision to construct the building was not at issue.

You’ve been here since January,” Biscoe told Daugherty. “We’ve had plenty of opportunities to discuss it. You’ve made your position clear. We went to the legislature and got two courts approved and where they will go is where the DA is. So the plan hasn’t changed. We’ve discussed it at length many, many times. This was not cheap land – we knew that before we voted to acquire it. We’re on this course, and in my view we need it.”

Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez shared her thoughts on why, despite the cost of the land and the estimated tens of millions for building construction, the new space is necessary.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to move them outside of downtown and have to have the issue of bringing files and people downtown in order to be in those courts,” she said. “It was hard to get around this position of finding a place that’s close by given the fact there isn’t a whole lot around our courthouse. I don’t know that we have many other choices.”

Ultimately, Daugherty conceded the argument.

“I’ve kinda kicked and screamed about this from Day 1,” he said. “But hey, things get done with 4-1 votes. I’m not any more satisfied with it than I was before, but I get it. I’ve been on this end of the vote before.”

To which Biscoe replied, “We’ve been hoping we’d get you to join the majority.”

After a bit of laughter, the court voted 4-1, with Daugherty opposing, to move ahead with hiring an architect.

A contract for the building design is expected to be awarded mid-October.

Meanwhile, plans to begin construction of a Civil and Family Courthouse are also under way, a project slated to set the county back more than $300 million.

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