Commissioners get $294 million courthouse budget
Wednesday, November 19, 2014 by Mark Richardson
Travis County Commissioners heard a report Tuesday that the budget to construct the proposed new Civil and Family Courthouse comes in at $294 million. After asking their consultants some pointed questions about how they arrived at that amount, they passed the whole thing along to the new Commissioners Court, which will take office in January.
Getting passed along is nothing new for this project, which will eventually take the place of the crumbling Heman Sweatt Courthouse at 11th and Guadalupe streets. That building is almost 85 years old and Travis County officials have been talking about replacing it in one form or another for a decade or more. The county purchased the land for the building at Third and Guadalupe streets in 2010.
The companies hired to plan, design and build the project, URS Corporation and HOK Engineering, went over their findings on proposed facility, and attempted to refute claims by some that the project is overpriced compared to courthouse projects in other areas, particularly Broward County, Florida.
“We wanted to be able to explain a little bit about Broward County,” said George Tapas, national practice manager with URS Corporation. “The same firm helping us (HOK) is also helping with Broward County. That’s really important because we can get to the facts a little differently than what’s perhaps just out there.”
Tapas said the Broward County facility is a bigger courthouse at 714,000 square feet, compared to Travis County’s 520,000 square feet and has 20 stories as opposed to 14 stories. He said despite reports of lower building costs, the Broward facility has a price tag of $323 million. The URS budget for the Travis County facility comes in at $447 a square foot.
He said many of the numbers quoted by Bill Oakey, a member of the Citizens Focus Committee named to advise Commissioners on the courthouse project, were out of date and inaccurate. Oakey said his figures showed that Broward County was building its project for $298 per square foot, but Tapas said that figure was actually $448 a square foot.
Tapas told commissioners his firm originally came up with a price for the courthouse at around $350 million, but they calculated and consolidated to get the bottom line number below $300 million.
The $294 million budget figure is based on putting $276 million in a bond issue in May 2015 and funding the other $18 million with non-voting bonds. Travis County will have until late February to call a bond vote for the May 9 Election Day.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said Austin’s economy makes it a tough place to build a building these days.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t think this court is going to sign off on anything unless it really, really makes sense for us to do,” he said. “The unfortunate thing is we don’t have any choice other than to go with hat in hand to the public and ask them to be able to build this courthouse.”
Commissioner Ron Davis was concerned that the cost will continue to escalate if the county does not move forward with the project.
“My immediate concern about this is the escalating cost of this particular family courthouse, as time moves,” he said. “You know, what costs a dollar today will cost two dollars tomorrow. … How long will that particular price hold at its cost with that amount of money?”
Commissioners voted to accept the report and pass it along to the Citizens Focus Committee, which meets this Thursday to begin working with the URS budget. That group will report its recommendations to the new Travis County Commission, which will be sworn in Jan. 2.
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