Wednesday, January 28, 2015 by Mark Richardson

Travis County sets bond election for November

On Tuesday, Travis County Commissioners chose November over May to go to the voters with a bond election to fund construction of the planned Civil and Family Courthouse project. Plans for the facility call for a 14-story, 511,000-square-foot building with 28 courtrooms and a 500-space underground parking facility.

Commissioners have not yet settled on a dollar amount for the bond issue, but the project currently has an estimated price tag of $294 million. Some estimates say the county could ask for as much as $300 million. According to county consultants, the longer it takes to build the new facility, the more it will cost.

Leading up to the choice of a November election, Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed concern about the possible political atmosphere in Travis County during May.

“One of the concerns I’ve had about an election in May is that it would follow on the heels of several months of legislative conversations about the need for appraisal caps, revenue caps and high local debt,” she said. “That may not be the best atmosphere for us to go to the voters and ask for a big ticket.”

Commissioners did not debate their choice of an election date in open court, but went into executive session to hear additional information from staff before reconvening and voting for November.

Earlier, Commissioners asked County Clerk Dana De Beauvoir about the differences between a May and a November election. She told Commissioners that in May, they would be on the ballot of most of the small towns in Travis County holding local elections, while in November, they would have the local ballot to themselves, with only statewide constitutional amendments — if any — with which to compete. She added that she does not expect the City of Austin, the Austin Independent School District nor Austin Community College to hold bond elections in November.

De Beauvoir also said it would cost the county an extra $400,000 to add the bond election to the May ballot, while the cost of a November election was fixed at about $1 million, and a bond issue would not add to the county’s costs.

The new courthouse will replace the current Heman Sweatt Courthouse, which is 83 years old and was declared obsolete a number of years ago.

The county currently plans to build the new courthouse at Guadalupe and Fourth streets on a lot purchased in 2010. However, there was concern among some of the Commissioners that some business interests were not happy with a new courthouse going up on prime downtown land and could oppose the project. Commissioners have discussed possible backup sites in that case, including one scenario that puts it on land on Airport Boulevard near other county-owned facilities.

Another possible reason for pushing the election out to November is that Commissioners feel they will need as much time as possible to educate the voters on the need for the new courthouse. Part of the project will be an extensive public education campaign managed by URS, the county’s consultant on the courthouse project.

The Travis County Bar Association, a group of Travis County judges and some downtown business interests have also pledged to work to get the bonds passed. Delaine Ward, president of the bar association, told Commissioners on Tuesday that the association had already raised $75,000 toward the effort and had a goal of building a war chest of $250,000.

Commissioners will have the courthouse project back on the agenda next week in order to look more closely at construction schedules.

Image of the courthouse site is courtesy of Travis County

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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