Wednesday, August 12, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Commissioners lower courts-complex price tag

Travis County voters will face a slightly smaller-than-expected bond proposition this November, thanks to last-minute trimming in the proposed Civil & Family Courts Complex budget.

At the Commissioners Court’s regular voting session on Tuesday, county staff officially unveiled the new $287.3 million price tag, a reduction of about $4.3 million from the previous number that had been floating around since earlier this year.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt characterized it as “very good news” and pledged to continue to look for ways to further shave off costs associated with the project.

“We are unlikely to find additional revenues before calling the election to reduce the bond amount that goes on the ballot,” Eckhardt explained. “But that will not mean an end by any means to our search for ways to reduce the burden of that debt to the taxpayer through the most effective and efficient utilization of this block and any block that we own.”

If voters approve the bond package in November, the county will construct a brand new civil and family courthouse in downtown Austin at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets. Although there is broad consensus that the need to replace the aging Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse is great, there is no guarantee that Travis County voters will greenlight nine figures of debt during what is widely regarded as an affordability crunch in the region.

With that political playing field in mind, Eckhardt has prioritized finding methods to blunt the sticker shock, and the new price tag revealed on Tuesday is the latest fruit of those efforts.

Project manager Belinda Powell explained that her team found $1.7 million by removing a component project that would come late in the development. Powell said the expectation is that the funding for that would eventually be determined, but for the time being, it wouldn’t be “prudent” to carry interest on it.

Powell also said that the county can expect to generate an extra $2.6 million from several sources designed to augment the project’s construction. Those include the sale of underused county properties, after-hours parking revenue from the future parking garage on the site, the leasing of air rights to a private developer to build a second tower on the site and the property taxes from that additional building.

Eckhardt later added that the $287.3 million bond amount is merely a ceiling for what the county can borrow. She concluded, “If it turns out that through a very favorable negotiation we do not have to borrow as much, we will not.”

The commissioners are expected to finalize the bond proposition at their next regular voting session on Aug. 18.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Travis County Civil and Family Courthouse: The Civil and Family Courthouse is currently planned for a redesign with a bond proposal for a 14-story, 511,000-square-foot building with 28 courtrooms.

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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