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County ponders partnership with city on one-stop justice shop

Friday, March 25, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

With a pair of aging courthouses between them, Travis County and the city of Austin could find a solution to their problems through mutual cooperation.

That idea was part of the focus of a Thursday afternoon work session at Travis County Commissioners Court during which county staff discussed the notion of freeing up land in downtown Austin by consolidating city and county departments that have overlapping services.

Last year, some critics of the county’s failed $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond proposal argued that a more efficient use of money and real estate would be to put the county’s new civil courthouse under the same roof as the eventual replacement for Austin’s aging Municipal Court.

On Tuesday, Travis County Strategic Resource Planning Manager Belinda Powell told the commissioners that her staff, as well as judges from both sides, had weighed that option before. “And we have reached the conclusion that we should be pursuing independent projects,” Powell said. “However, we don’t seem to have the analysis to support to the Commissioners Court, to City Council, and to the general public at large.”

To that end, Powell asked the court to consider tasking an independent analysis of the pros and cons of co-locating the courts in the same building.

Powell and Travis County Senior Planner Mark Gilbert also showed the court a color-coded map of all government-owned buildings in the central business district, from the federal level down to city facilities. Aside from the civil and municipal courts, Powell suggested that other governmental functions – such as Central Booking Unit, Austin Police Downtown Command, the city’s Community Court and the potential sobriety center – could be consolidated in one way or another.

Powell said that any discussions about moving forward on these ideas would be the first of many steps in a planning process that could take up to 18 months to bear any fruit.

“It will be something that really is in the planning stages,” she told the court. “But I think they are conversations that are well worth having. And I think they will give you more comfort in your notions of what real estate you should be letting go of or if you should be ground-leasing for development in some other way.”

Should the city and county end up partnering together to consolidate services, it would not be outside the realm of possibility that those services could be relocated outside of downtown. Ultimately, though, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt shot down any speculation that the county might decide, as some have suggested, to pull up stakes entirely and leave the urban core.

“We want to shrink our footprint, but we don’t want to shrink our presence,” she said. “I think it is important that the seat of government, whether it’s the city or county, does have a presence in the central business district along with the state.”

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