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Commissioners ponder best date for bond election

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 by Mark Richardson

Travis County Commissioners began a series of discussions Tuesday to determine the best schedule to fund and build the proposed new $294 million Civil and Family Courthouse building. The main decision will be whether to go to Travis County voters with a bond election in May or November.

The new courthouse, which has been in the planning stages for almost six years, would provide relief from the outdated and undersized Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse facility, which is now 84 years old. Judges, attorneys and other officials have complained for years about the condition of the building, which was deemed inadequate more than 20 years ago. The new facility, which would be 14 stories tall with up to 28 courtrooms and several levels of underground parking, is planned for a plot of land at 11th Fourth and Guadalupe streets that the county bought in 2010.

Commissioners heard an array of scenarios Tuesday from URS, the consulting firm on the project, that covered a number of times when the county could call a bond election for the project. After Austin voters turned down a $1 billion bond election last year, Travis County officials are deeply concerned about the possibility of voters rejecting the courthouse proposition as well.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said there is a lot of pressure to get it right.

“If I thought that we could promote this to the point to where the public would be willing to accept it, then I would love to get on with the May election,” he said. “But it frightens me to do that. Not to say that I couldn’t get there, but I do think that is our biggest liability. … The worst thing that can happen is [for us] to roll something out and get it defeated.”

Commissioner Ron Davis emphasized just how important the project is to Travis County.

“I’m at a pivot point,” Davis said. “Because when you are talking about the magnitude, the gravity … this is a major league, Super Bowl-type of project. The square footage, you know, 28 courtrooms, you know, 14 stories high, underground parking, all these kind of things. That’s big.”

George Tapas and his staff with URS walked Commissioners through several possible timelines on building the courthouse, each one predicated on whether they hold the election in May or November. The scenarios also contained other variances that would affect the projected completion date.

Judge Sarah Eckhardt said there were also concerns about what other issues might be on the ballots in either May or November. She pointed out that in May, the Texas Legislature is likely to be in the middle of a debate over cutting taxes for homeowners, which could pose a problem in asking them for more money. However, she said that moving the vote to November would delay the timetable and possibly escalate some of the costs.

Daugherty said that convincing the county’s voters that this is a necessary project could be difficult in the city’s current taxing and housing climate.

“We know what we’re faced with in this community,” Daugherty said. “Affordability has absolutely smacked everybody right between the eyes. So when you are asking people to go out and you are talking about if you do a $300 million bill, you have $40 tax increase in your $233,000 home … it’s just, ‘Can you make sure that your community is going to understand?’”

Another key factor — whenever the vote is held — would be the effectiveness with which Travis County staff is able to educate the voters about the project. County staff is already planning a series of community information meetings and are hoping some influential groups will get behind the project.

Speaking on behalf of those who work in the old courthouse, District Judge Lora Livingston said they are more than ready for the project to get underway.

“What we want you to know, each and every one of us, is: the sooner the better,” she said. “Because we are past the need to be able to provide for this community the kind of space that this community deserves, especially for children and families and to keep the litigants safe when they come to our building, and to protect the workers who work in that building. And we can’t continue to do that in the existing space.”

Commissioners will have the project on their agenda for the next few weeks, with County Clerk Dana De Beauvoir talking next week about what other issues could be on the various ballots in May or November. Eckhardt said she hopes the Commission will be able to make a decision on a date for the bond issue by the Feb. 3 meeting.

image courtesy of the Travis County Civil & Family Courthouse website

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