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Travis Commissioners settle DA building drama

Wednesday, March 11, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners Court settled the final act Tuesday in a lengthy drama surrounding a proposed new district attorney’s office building.

In a 3-2 vote, the commissioners gave the green light to a moderately revised version of the Ronnie Earle Office Building. Named after the longtime district attorney who served for more than three decades, the new building would bring the staff of Earle’s successor, Rosemary Lehmberg, under one roof at the corner of West 11th and San Antonio streets next to the Travis County Justice Complex. Currently, Lehmberg’s 200-plus employees work out of multiple buildings spread across downtown.

The commissioners approved the deal with the contracting firm Flintco to build the Earle Building for a new maximum price of $42 million. County staff had spent the past week chiseling that number down from Flintco’s previous offer in an attempt to resolve an interdepartmental disagreement that had not only hamstrung the project, it nearly led to commissioners scrapping the plans altogether at last week’s voting session.

Commissioners Brigid Shea and Gerald Daugherty opposed the plan Tuesday, each suggesting that its eight-figure price tag might give voters reason to balk at a crucial county bond decision this November.

“They’re watching closely because we’re about to ask, in the next eight months, for permission to borrow $300 million,” Daugherty told the court, slightly exaggerating the $292 million November bond proposition to build a new downtown Civil and Family Courthouse at West 4th and Guadalupe streets.

But Facilities Management Director Roger El-Khoury and Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes told the commissioners Tuesday that they were both happy with the new figure for the Earle Building. They explained that they had found $3 million in savings by removing from the plans one office floor and a pedestrian tunnel beneath West 11th Street. After the vote, Grimes told the Austin Monitor that those features could still eventually be added to the building in separate phases.

The compromise between Grimes and El-Khoury ended their simmering split over whether to open the process to new bidders, but it still didn’t satisfy Daugherty. He questioned the mechanics of the so-called maximum guaranteed price of $42 million and asked Grimes what would happen if unexpected circumstances pushed the final construction costs over that number.

“If there’s unforeseen conditions above and beyond the GMP, we would come back to the Commissioners Court and modify the contract,” she told him. Grimes also explained that Flintco’s offer is padded with contingency money to absorb unexpected costs. If the project comes in under budget, she said, the county keeps the difference.

Still, Daugherty wasn’t convinced that a new building was needed, arguing that the county currently owns enough existing office space to accommodate all of its employees.

“There’s no one that we have working for Travis County right now that’s working on a sidewalk,” he quipped.

Belinda Powell, the Planning and Budget Office’s strategic planning manager, told the commissioners that scuttling plans for the Earle Building would, in the long run, cost just as much as moving forward with the project. After the vote, she described the aging state of the county’s central city properties.

“The average age of the buildings that we own downtown is 55 years old,” Powell said. “The only way you change that is to bring new square footage on board. That means you redevelop some of the sites that you have, which means we have to tear down some buildings and reconstruct new ones, in order to have newer assets that have more efficient systems that can meet LEED standards and that don’t drain the maintenance budgets the way our buildings do.”

Another wrinkle in the plan for Daugherty is the three-level underground parking garage. It would have 160 spaces, 20 of which the county has already promised to lease to the neighboring Texas PTA headquarters. According to El-Khoury, the garage accounted for $7.2 million of Flintco’s preliminary cost estimate. Grimes pointed out that revised projections put the garage at about $850,000 per floor.

Still, Daugherty asked County Judge Sarah Eckhardt if she would entertain a substitute motion to clear the project for approval without the parking garage. Eckhardt told him she was willing to vote on the $42 million maximum price while leaving open the option to discuss the fate of the parking garage at a future date.

Shea then echoed Daugherty’s concerns over the plan’s cost. She put the project in the context of the county’s master plan for building and redeveloping existing properties.

“I look at it as a have-to-have and a want-to-have,” Shea said. “And I think some of these other buildings, including the Civil and Family Courthouse, which we’re planning for the fall, from everything I’ve understood about it, it’s a have-to-have. I don’t see this building as a have-to-have, and it does concern me that it started with an initial estimate of $29 million and is now up to $42 million. I can’t support it.”

Before the final vote, Commissioner Margaret Gómez attempted to disabuse any notions that the county has an unchecked appetite for construction. She cited the years of careful planning that the county has put into its buildings.

“I’ve been here 20 years. We’ve been talking about space, planning, all of those, for 20 years,” she told her colleagues. “So I don’t want the impression to be left that we don’t plan, and that we spend money just because we want to get rid of every penny and then collect more. That’s not the way it works here.”


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