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City still looking for Municipal Court building funds

Thursday, May 17, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Last week, during discussion of whether City Council should approve a 10-year lease for Austin’s Municipal Court at the Met Center in Southeast Austin, Council Member Ora Houston opposed the $31 million contract with Zydeco Development. Her reasoning was partially based on a map on the company’s website that was insulting to Latinos, but also because she thought the price was too high.

Although Council approved the contract, with Houston and Council Member Pio Renteria voting no and Council Member Leslie Pool abstaining, Houston made it clear that she wanted to find out why the city had not built a new Municipal Court with bond money.

Voters approved $58.1 million in funding for public safety projects on Nov. 7, 2006. According to city Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart, the city still has $5 million in bond money from that proposition that was authorized but has not been issued.

In a memo to mayor and Council this week, Hart said the language of the proposition for public safety projects “was broad, rather than specific, which has allowed for flexibility in funding the public safety facility initiatives.” So far, the city has issued $53.1 million in bonds for public safety projects.

The city acquired the old Home Depot site at 906 E. St. Johns Ave. in 2007. At the time, the city intended it to be a site for the Municipal Court and for a northeast police substation. That cost about $8.1 million.

On Oct. 24, 2013, Council authorized purchase of an adjacent property on a little more than five acres at 7309 N. Interstate 35 for about $2.9 million (known as the “Chrysler Tract”), still with the intention of building a courthouse and police station.

The backup material for the Chrysler Tract agenda item stated that after the purchase, the city would still have nearly $10.5 million in the Municipal Court budget and nearly $5.7 million in the police substation budget to build those buildings.

Hart’s memo indicates that the city is working on a public-private partnership (P3) model “for permanent North and South municipal court centers.” However, it does not appear that there has been very much progress. The memo states that work on the P3 front “will include due diligence, a Request for Information, followed by a Request for Proposals. Costs, including real estate costs, would be identified during the P3 real estate transaction process.”

The Austin Monitor asked why the city purchased the Chrysler Tract if it had already determined that the Home Depot site was not appropriate for the Municipal Court. A city spokesperson said via email, “At the time Real Estate purchased the Chrysler site, the idea of having a Municipal Court and NE Police substation was still a very much active conversation between the departments involved. The City did not begin pursuing the P3 model for facilities until 2015.”

Language in the 2006 proposition, which 71 percent of voters approved, also included a public safety training facility, police stations, EMS buildings and facilities, and an animal shelter. But the money did not stretch to cover the entire package.

Disclosure: The Austin Monitor’s publisher, Mike Clark-Madison, served on the 2006 bond committee. Photo by WhisperToMe [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

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