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Activist opposes Travis courthouse bond proposal

Friday, April 3, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

A prominent local advocate for low taxes and fiscal responsibility has declared his opposition to Travis County’s proposed $292 million Civil and Family Courthouse bond.

Retired accountant Bill Oakey announced Thursday that he has resigned from the Community Focus Committee, an advisory group tasked with helping the county and its consultant, URS Corporation, develop plans for the building.

In an article on his blog, AffordableAustin.com, Oakey wrote that his “hopes for a cost-effective plan have been completely dashed.” He included the full text of his resignation letter to Travis County Commissioners Court, in which he condemns the current proposal as “lavish and expensive.”

“Let there be no mistake about it, Travis County is badly in need of a new civil and family courthouse,” the letter says. “In fact, that need is long overdue. However, I think it would behoove the members of the Commissioners Court to re-examine the current project with its high cost and come up with a streamlined proposal that would place a much smaller burden on the taxpayers.”

If approved, the bond money would pay for a 14-story, 511,000-square-foot building with 28 courtrooms at West 4th and Guadalupe streets in downtown Austin. That includes a 500-space underground parking garage. It would replace the aging Heman Marion Sweatt building at West 10th and Guadalupe.

The head of the political action committee campaigning for the courthouse downplayed Oakey’s concerns over the project’s price tag.

“No one has any interest in building a Taj Mahal,” the Community for the Civil and Family Courthouse PAC’s Genevieve Van Cleve told the Austin Monitor. “But it doesn’t serve the public interest to build something halfhearted.” Van Cleve also said the county is still working on new ideas for revenue streams to absorb some of the cost of the bonds, including selling or leasing underutilized properties in and around downtown Austin.

The courthouse has been in the planning stages for years, and while Oakey is not the first to raise any objections to it, he is the most high-profile opponent to emerge since the Commissioners Court decided in January to send the issue to voters in November.

However, Oakey’s new role as an outspoken critic is just the latest step in his fight to make the project “a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.” Indeed, according to his resignation letter, he persuaded the Commissioners Court in 2013 to adopt that very phrase as a guiding principle for the courthouse plans.

That early victory appears to have set the stage for Oakey’s present frustration. After his appointment to the committee in early 2014, he writes, he “cannot point to even one concrete example of a unique cost effectiveness or efficiency planning or design initiative that was presented to our committee.”

According to its website, the Community Focus Committee’s first charge is to “act as a sounding board for the Commissioners Court and URS” on the development of the new courthouse. However, Oakey told the Monitor that the committee might have fallen short of that goal.

“Yes, we provided input to consultants and a few staff members, but we never had any face-to-face meetings with the Commissioners,” he said. Oakey added that attendance at the monthly meetings of the 30-person committee “has been pretty low, especially lately.”

Committee Chair Martha Dickie could not be reached to comment on those claims, but Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Monitor that, since taking office in January, she did not have the “impression that there was any disconnect” between the committee and the Commissioners Court. She said that proxies for the Commissioners had sat in on committee meetings several times.

Eckhardt also praised Oakey for his service, saying, “He sure has been really helpful in terms of kicking the tires on finances.”

 

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