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County to pause construction on some inessential public works projects

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Travis County plans to pause construction on some of its public works projects to slow the spread of the coronavirus over the coming weeks.

As a general rule, residential and commercial construction has been put on hold since the county’s Stay Home, Work Safe order took effect March 25, allowing exceptions for affordable housing, construction for essential uses and public works projects. Going forward, Diana Ramirez, director of Economic Development and Strategic Investments, said the department has decided to put a hold on redevelopment at Palm School and the Travis County Expo Center to further reduce social interactions.

While affordable housing developments like Travis Flats on Airport Boulevard will carry on, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said it’s important for the county to take a closer look at each of its construction and development projects to “take those that we can delay off the table for now.”

“We’re trying to find that sweet spot. Allowing a 50,000-person industry to continue would certainly reduce our ability to meet a 90 percent reduction in personal and business interactions, but a 50,000-person industry shuttered would make it more difficult for us to stabilize and recover economically.”

Eckhardt said that while the interruptions are sure to cause the county some difficulty, the greater need is to meet the 90 percent reduction target. She said any public works projects that are not essential in the immediate future, such as Palm School and the expo center, might be put on hiatus to reach that goal.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said his office is getting pelted with emails protesting the county’s constriction on residential and commercial construction. The other commissioners reported similar complaints, but Commissioner Brigid Shea said the email addresses suggest most are coming from a single construction company, Lennar Corporation.

Even so, Daugherty said he cannot defend an order shutting down residential and commercial developments while the county allows many of its own projects to continue. “If you want to close the construction industry – both commercial and residential – under the name of protection from this pandemic, then we need to be part of it and close our projects as well.”

“It’s really a difficult thing to defend while some can continue and some can’t,” Daugherty continued. “We know that some residential properties literally have maybe three or four people that work on those projects on a given day, and to close it down completely is really hard to get people to understand that they ought to be accepting of this.”

When the county’s order expires April 13, Daugherty said he will be ready to have a “very, very serious conversation” about how to regulate construction going forward.

“If we can’t show by the numbers that this is being really beneficial then I think that we’ve got to really consider opening up at least the construction industry, with a lot of caveats as to how you carry on.”

Based on the way things are going, Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director for Austin-Travis County, said it’s likely the county will need to extend its stay-at-home order on April 13. Social distancing has already helped slow the virus’ rate of growth, but based on current trends, the county could have around 900 cases of Covid-19 by that time.

In another effort to balance public and economic health, the Commissioners Court agreed Tuesday to stop accepting petitions for public improvement districts until further notice. As for PID projects already in the pipeline, Ramirez said the department is still exploring whether or not those fall under the umbrella of essential business.

In a unanimous vote, the court also granted the department authority to maintain the county’s suspension on granting property tax rebates to lure large corporations into the county. Given the current crisis, Ramirez said the department intends to use those resources to help smaller local businesses that are in the greatest need of help.

Despite the massive economic impact being felt across the state, Ramirez said the $2 trillion federal CARES Act will bring the region much relief.

“There’s a lot of funding in here,” Ramirez said, with particular attention to state stabilization funds that could bring about $200 million to Austin-Travis County by the end of April. “There’s just a ton of money all over the place that’s going to be allocated.”

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