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Travis Commissioners give go-ahead for new Civil and Family Courthouse

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Under pressure to act, the Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday approved a construction method for building a new Civil and Family Courthouse in downtown Austin.

The unanimous endorsement came after a lengthy presentation, debate, impassioned argument and a bit of admitted confusion on the part of some members of the court. But the court still has no firm grasp – beyond a $300 million estimate – on exactly how much the courthouse will end up costing county taxpayers.

The courthouse will go up at 3rd and Guadalupe streets.

Community pressure to make headway on the lagging project could also have helped facilitate Tuesday’s vote.

District Judge Lora Livingston, who oversees administration for her fellow Travis County judges, offered a blunt plea before the court voted. “We want you to make a decision, we want you to make it quickly, we want you to make it today and we want to move forward with this project,” she said. “We need a new courthouse.”

URS Corporation, the group the court chose to help manage the planning, financing and construction of the new courthouse, had presented the court with several delivery methods, including a public-private partnership, or P3, setup.

The court decided to go with a method called design build in which a designer and contractor work as a team to escort the project through to the bidding phase.

“We’ve done design build before,” said Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who believes this model gives the county more control over construction than a P3 model would. “We like to be careful and make sure we know every step that’s being taken so we know exactly what we’re spending.”

Gómez says she sees the P3 method as having more of a focus on concessions and entertainment than business and, in this case, justice. “People don’t really want to go to courthouses unless they feel like they’re going to win a case,” she said. “It’s not a pleasant experience. We don’t want to commercialize it. That’s a building that carries a lot of integrity. They do serious business for the people.”

URS’s George Tapas said in the long run the method that could end up saving taxpayers money, and the model his company was in favor of, was a P3.

“Simply because if you stacked up all the costs from start to finish over 30 years, the P3 option will save you, the studies showed, about 4 percent,” he said.  

Gómez said for her, the numbers didn’t add up.

“They chose what they wanted to go with—something they’re more comfortable with,” Tapas said. “They can’t be criticized for that.”

Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd, who supports the P3 model, agreed. “We’re now at year 4 and it’s imperative from a public integrity standpoint that we show we can and will approve motions that go forward on this and make this a reality sooner than later,” he said. “I believe bringing in the private sector on something right in the heart of downtown Austin where the courthouse should be, and (where) the private sector should be also, has great opportunities.”

Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s motion to move forward with the project with the design build form of delivery was seconded by Gómez, after which Todd offered a last-ditch substitute motion that the court move toward a P3 direction.

The motion was met with utter silence.

“That dies for lack of a second,” Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis stressed a desire to make sure Travis County voters are fully informed about the design method and cost of the project prior to a bond referendum.

The court unanimously approved Daugherty’s original motion.

Tapas says URS now plans to continue its work with Travis County, gather public input on the construction of the courthouse, and prepare for a bond referendum.

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