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Commissioners to hear budget for new courthouse

Tuesday, November 18, 2014 by Mark Richardson

Travis County Commissioners are set to hear a report today on the planned Civil and Family Courthouse project, but there have been protests about the project’s proposed $294 million budget even though the report has yet to be made public.

Commissioners approved the space allocations for the building about a month ago, and today will hear cost estimates and a construction budget from URS Corporation and HOK Engineering, the companies hired to plan, design and build the project. Travis County bought the land for the building at Third and Guadalupe streets in 2010 with non-voter-approved bonds. The project has jumped between the front and back burner since then.

Bill Oakey, a retired accountant who writes the blog and is a member of the Citizens Focus Committee to advise Commissioners on the courthouse project, said in an email to the Monitor on Monday that if the county accepts the budget that is presented today, it will be paying way too much.

“I have been working for over a year to convince Travis County not to spend $300 million for a new downtown civil and family courthouse,” he wrote. “Last year I discovered a new courthouse in Broward County, Florida, that is being constructed for half the price per square foot as the one being proposed.”

The preliminary plans for the Travis County facility call for a 14-story, 511,000 square foot building with 28 courtrooms and a 500-space parking facility for a cost of $294 million. However, Oakey points out that Broward County is constructing a 20-story, 714,000 square foot facility that will contain 77 courtrooms (with room to expand) and a 500-space garage for a cost of only $213 million.

The cost estimate and budget to be presented to Travis County Commissioners today will be based on a proposed May 2015 bond election with a completion date of December 2018.

Oakey calls the $294 million price tag on the planned Travis County facility “unreasonably high.” He points to Broward County and other court facilities, including the new federal court building in Austin, as examples of how such a facility can be built for much less money. The estimate is fairly close to the benchmark budget of $284 million that Commissioners approved in 2013.

Travis County Commissioners have been discussing the Civil and Family Courthouse project for more than five years, bogged down at times over whether to put bonding authority for the entire project before the voters or to split the costs in a public-private partnership.

That topic is likely to come up again, as the next opportunity to put a bond referendum on a ballot will be May 2015. However, this court could wait until January for two new members – County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Pct. 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea – to join the Court before making a decision.

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