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Commissioners nearly boot plans for DA’s office

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners came dangerously close Tuesday to scrapping plans to build a new office tower for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

The clash between two county agencies over cost almost ended the project when Commissioner Gerald Daugherty seconded a motion by Commissioner Brigid Shea to pull the plug on the plan altogether.

After some tense moments and an emotional statement from District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt used Commissioner Ron Davis’ absence as an excuse to once again delay a final vote on what she characterized as a problem that’s been postponed enough already.

Commissioners postponed a vote on it during their Feb. 18 meeting because both Daugherty and Davis were off the dais. The question at hand is whether to move forward with a contractor who has given the project a $45 million price tag, or to open the process to public bids. Facilities management director Roger El Khuory believes the county can get a better price if other contractors could bid on it. However, county purchasing agent Cyd Grimes argues that while a new bid may come in lower, the final cost could balloon as the project advances.

Eckhardt expressed frustration at a recent spate of delayed major capital projects, including the proposed Civil and Family Courthouse originally intended for a November 2011 bond election. Voters will finally get their say on that project this November, but its nine-figure price tag has dampened Shea’s support for the proposed district attorney’s office, also known as the Ronnie Earle Building in honor of Lehmberg’s predecessor.

“I feel like we have to send a powerful message to voters to say that we’re good stewards of public funds,” Shea said, explaining her motion to deep-six the Earle Building. “We’re going to be asking voters in November to approve a big item with this civil courthouse.”

If built, the seven-story Earle Building would provide 130,000 square feet of office space for Lehmberg and her staff. Currently, the district attorney’s operation stretches out across temporary offices inside two separate buildings in downtown Austin.

Instead of building a brand-new office, Daugherty suggested that the County Planning and Budget Office might consider finding a third site to accommodate overflow district attorney workers. Both Daugherty and Shea indicated there could be plenty of room in the county’s flagship office building at 700 Lavaca St.

“How much could you get out of this building if you didn’t have such large, open spaces?” Daugherty asked Belinda Powell, strategic planning manager with the Travis County Planning and Budget Office. He joked that several rooms are so large, “the UT football team could work out in some of them.”

The idea began to deflate when Powell told Daugherty that adding more county workers to 700 Lavaca St. could violate existing lease agreements with non-county tenants. Eckhardt also pointed out that specific security considerations required by the district attorney’s office would necessitate costly retrofitting.

However, the most forceful objection to the possibility of ditching the proposed Earle Building in favor of existing space came from Lehmberg, who told commissioners she was shocked they were even considering it.

“I don’t know how long y’all intend for us to stay in this temporary space. It sounds like it’s getting permanent,” she said. “It is not what we contemplated.”

Lehmberg also echoed the security concerns cited by Eckhardt. In addition, she pointed out that the distance between 700 Lavaca St. and the Travis County Justice Complex would further burden her employees.

“It wouldn’t help much more to be in this building. We still have to get to court. Courts don’t happen unless assistant DAs are there,” she told Daugherty.

“I just want to say, I don’t think it’s fair,” Lehmberg concluded.

Commissioner Margaret Gómez agreed with Lehmberg and noted that she felt the commission was on the verge of abruptly torpedoing, in one day, a project that has been in the works for years.

“Rosemary’s right. A lot of people have been involved in this process,” Gómez said, reflecting on the years of planning that involved several county agencies. “So it does kind of disturb me a little bit that we would say, ‘Let’s stop it.’”

Further questioning of Powell revealed that she does not think it is possible to find enough room for the district attorney’s overflowing staff in 700 Lavaca St. She explained that it is not just office space that’s needed.

“The district attorney’s office needs some very specialized spaces to do discovery and some other things associated with it,” Powell said.

The mounting doubt over the 700 Lavaca St. alternative as well as Davis’ absence was enough to persuade both Shea and Daugherty to withdraw their effort to kill the Earle Building proposal.

But Eckhardt vowed this was the final delay.

“We will take action next week,” she declared.


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