Wednesday, August 19, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Commissioners set courthouse bond election

Travis County’s largest bond proposition in recent memory has officially graduated from the Commissioners Court to the much more challenging court of public opinion.

In a historic moment that capped off years of planning, the commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to send the $287.3 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond question to voters this November.

If approved, the new facility would bring badly needed relief to the overcrowded Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse.

“The reality is, we need the capacity, and we have a constitutional obligation to provide the capacity,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at a press conference after the commissioners voted to put the bond on the ballot. “I believe the proposal we’re putting forward is the most effective and efficient way to provide the capacity.”

In a display of bipartisan support, Eckhardt kicked off the press conference flanked by Republican Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Democratic Commissioner Brigid Shea. She addressed the daunting size of the bond issue itself by noting that staff had “skinnied down” the project’s budget from an original estimate of $350 million.

After the city of Austin elections last year swept into office a small army of candidates who pledged to confront the rising cost of living, a commitment to fiscal discipline will play a key role in the messaging of the campaign to sell the courts complex to voters.

Several times, Eckhardt pledged to continue to look for ways to offset the burden on taxpayers. In doing so, she also managed to address criticisms about the proposed downtown location of the courts complex at West Fourth and Guadalupe streets.

“You couldn’t monetize parking out on I-35 and 183, for instance. Couldn’t do it,” she said. “People would not pay for the parking infrastructure after hours.”

Eckhardt also reiterated the county’s plan to lease the air rights on the southern half of the site to be used as a private office tower. She said, “We’ll basically be land-banking that airspace, having it generate tax income until we need to use some portion of that space. We wouldn’t be able to do that on Airport Boulevard.”

After Eckhardt’s opening remarks at the press conference, she introduced a series of judges who work at the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse and described the degrading conditions in that building.

District Judge Lora Livingston talked about the small mobs of children who are relegated to hanging out in the hallways due to a lack of dedicated child care space.

“I want a building where I can go to work and take care of the people’s business and work on families and have them be participants in the cases in front of me – and have their children safely protected in that space that’s age-appropriate for them, and be well looked after by adults who can provide adequate supervision,” Livingston said. “That’s not what we provide today.”

Judge John Dietz, who gave the Austin Monitor a tour of the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse last week, told the room that the building was completed more than 80 years ago. “What was appropriate for the 77,000 citizens of Travis County in 1931 cannot serve the 1 million-plus citizens of Travis County in 2015,” Dietz said.

Underscoring the lack of proper child care amenities, Judge Eric Shepperd related an encounter on the building’s third floor that he had with a mother who needed to change her baby’s diaper. Shepperd said that the only restroom with a diaper station is on the first floor.

“When I came back from the place where I was visiting, I saw her changing the baby on the table that sits there (in the hallway),” Shepperd said. “She changed the child there, got up, got into her hearing, and got going. And then I came back a little later around lunchtime, and there were people eating on that table.”

The general plans for the new courts complex call for a 14-story building with 520,000 square feet, which is almost 400,000 square feet larger than the current courthouse. Before voting to order the election, the commissioners also took action to approve the Request for Qualifications document that staff will use to solicit firms to design and build the complex.

They also formally created a tax increment reinvestment zone, or TIRZ, that will funnel money from after-hours parking revenues to improvements along the streetscape and in neighboring Republic Square Park.

So far, no formal opposition to the bond seems to have materialized, but the political action committee that is now coordinating the courts complex campaign has raised a substantial war chest, indicating just how willing it is to fight.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Eckhardt framed the challenge as the best opportunity the county could see for a long time.

“If we are not successful in this proposal, we will have to retool and look for other ways to provide the capacity,” she said. “From where I stand today, I don’t see other options that are as effective or as efficient as what we are proposing.”

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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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