Wednesday, September 11, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

County benchmarks Civil-Family Courthouse budget at $284 million

Travis County’s Planning and Budget Office is working with a fresh target cost – a few tens of millions of dollars less than the original projection – for getting the new downtown Civil and Family Courthouse built.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Court set the benchmark budget at just over $284 million. Initial estimates had the construction cost at $340 million.

“That’s the best estimate we have right now until we move further into the process,” said Belinda Powell, strategic planning manager for the county. “We’re actually researching other court projects to see what their budgets are.”

The Civil and Family Courthouse is set to be built on prime county-owned land at 3rd and Guadalupe streets near Republic Square Park. Ultimately, the courthouse is projected as a 511,000-square-foot high-rise which will include a 15,000 square foot parking garage. Earlier this year, the court chose URS Corporation to help manage the planning, financing and construction of courthouse.

County officials have been debating this project for years, but are still very much in the planning stages. The $340 million price tag sparked a barrage of criticism and concern from citizens and the court itself. Late Monday, County Judge Sam Biscoe sent a memorandum to his fellow court members recommending they collectively ask county staff to perform comparison research.

Biscoe wrote, “In order to dilute some of the negative publicity that our courthouse is receiving and to place our estimated total cost in the appropriate context, I recommend that we ask appropriate county staff to survey officials connected to recently constructed courthouses in other jurisdictions…”

The point, Biscoe said, is to see an “apples to apples” cost comparison. Staff would consider aspects such as location, total square footage, total cost, cost per square foot, special features (like childcare facilities, technology, and inmate holding cells) and parking.

Customer service and satisfaction are also of concern to court members.

“I remember going to the Harris County courthouse,” said Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez. “They had escalators versus elevators to make sure that (fewer) numbers of people got on elevators because they’re slower. Escalators would get people to where they needed to be quickly.”

Gómez was also impressed with the Charlotte, North Carolina courthouse which “seems to have a real good take on child care facilities,” she said.

Powell informed the court that Charlotte’s courthouse was built at a cost of $252 per square foot with a construction budget of $156.6 million, albeit in 2007.

Local retired accountant and author of the new blog AustinAffordability.com, Bill Oakey, may have been influential in getting the court to take this serious look at how other authorities have saved money on courthouse builds. Oakey has for the last few weeks held meetings with members of the court, including Judge Biscoe, to present them with independent research he has performed on a new 20-story, 714,000-square-foot, $213 million courthouse in Broward County, Fla. which is currently under construction.

“I have done quite a bit of research on the Broward County courthouse, which I found to be approximately $300 per square foot which is half the cost of what has been publicized about the (Travis County) proposed courthouse,” Oakey said. “I would like you to ask your staff and your consultants to make this courthouse project a national model for cost effectiveness and efficiency. We should be able to win that title away from Harris County, Broward County, North Carolina or any other state.”

Oakey’s input appears to be having intended effect.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered someone with that kind of community interest to spend his volunteer time down here helping the public as well as helping us by researching the cost issues around that courthouse,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd. “That’s a true public servant.”

Powell and other staff members will continue their research and return before the court in about four weeks with comparisons. Powell’s cost figures are less than Oakey’s, yet high enough to compel staff to work on bringing them down.  

“Right now our construction estimate runs us about $407 a square foot,” she said. “We’ll probably see that come under $400. It may even reach $350 before we are ready to go to the voters.”

At this point, there has been no decision made about when to place the item on the ballot.

“We are taking a complete look at the possibilities to make sure we have the lowest cost possible without sacrificing quality,” Commissioner Todd said. “It’s easy to make things cheap. It’s harder to make them cost efficient and effective in the long-term.”

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