Helping Travis County Reduce the Cost of the New Courthouse

STATESMAN IN-DEPTH: TRAVIS COUNTY COURTHOUSE

As Travis County works toward courthouse price, Florida project may be a guide

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013
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BY FARZAD MASHHOOD – AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

As Travis County commissioners embark on plans for a $340 million civil courthouse — hoping to avoid the embarrassing cost overruns, delays and lawsuits that plagued their last major downtown construction project — officials are looking toward the beaches of Florida for guidance.

Two miles from the Atlantic Ocean, officials in Broward County, Fla. are working on a new courthouse, too. The south Florida courthouse will be five stories taller and contain twice as many courtrooms as Travis County officials plan to build, but at a cost of $298 per square foot — half the price Travis County officials project.

Consumer advocate Bill Oakey has told Travis commissioners all about the Broward County courthouse, which is under construction and slated to open in the summer of 2015. Now, Travis County leaders are looking into the Florida project, and may survey other recently built courthouses around the country for cost-cutting ideas.

“I think, shame on us if we can’t find a way to build this thing the most most-effective way possible and give the judges what they feel they need,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. He met with Oakey and is having an aide research the Broward project’s particulars to see how comparable Travis County’s project is and what can be scaled back here.

County Judge Sam Biscoe, chairman of the commissioners, said he will have a discussion during an upcoming meeting and will ask his colleagues to vote on whether to ask staffers to survey similar projects, including the Harris County courthouse that opened in 2005.

The county’s anxieties about cost overruns are real: The Criminal Justice Center opened in 2000, three years later than planned and at a cost of $45 million, about twice what was originally budgeted. The county sued the contractor overseeing the project, accusing it of design problems and delays, but the company said it did everything the county asked of it. Others had said the county rushed the project and demanded too many design changes.

As with that complex, commissioners plan to fund the civil courthouse through voter-approved bonds, perhaps on the November 2014 ballot. But approval is not going to be a slam dunk. Last year, Austin voters narrowly nixed $78.3 million in bonds for affordable housing; in May, two of the Austin school district’s bond packages, worth a combined $403 million, also failed.

If Travis County seeks $340 million in bonds for the civil courthouse, the cost to taxpayers would be about $61 to $69 a year. Commissioners have said shrinking the project’s tab could improve its chances for approval.

Back in Broward County, voters balked at the request for $450 million in bonds to finance most of the courthouse project, which would have cost the average landowner about $33 a year. About 61 percent of the voters rejected those bonds in 2006. That forced community leaders — lawyers, judges, mayors and commissioners — to regroup and reshape the courthouse plan into something they could afford with other pots of money.

“The type of building we had originally contemplated was not possible,” said Alphonso Jefferson, assistant to the Broward County administrator. “The task force looked at what the basic components of a new courthouse are … and that’s what you’re seeing coming out of the ground today.”

The new courthouse will have some room for expansion, but is built for Broward County’s court needs of today, Jefferson said. Originally planned as a 893,000-square-feet complex costing $510 million, the courthouse was pared down to a 714,000-square-foot tower costing $213 million. Broward officials are using cash, federal stimulus money and tax revenue to pay for it.

Shrinking the project helped, but Broward also found more affordable ways to build and finance it. How? That’s what Travis County officials hope to learn by scrutinizing the project.

Biscoe said his request for staffers to study other projects is “more than two hours of work. It’s a major investment of time.”

He also cautioned that Travis County’s $340 million estimate, originating from a consultant’s report in 2012, is likely an unreliably high figure. He said county staffers haven’t vetted the assumptions behind the estimate. The building hasn’t even been designed yet, which is when more accurate costs emerge. The actual cost, he said, will “be based on a whole lot of facts we don’t have today.”

Travis County officials plan to build a civil courthouse sized to meet its needs 2035 and last for at least 50 years. The existing Heman Sweatt Travis County Courthouse opened in 1931 and has had two major expansions, yet, the building has about half as much space as the county says it needs.

The new courthouse estimates are made on various assumptions by the consultants, such as building a “world-class building of significance/a grand public building,” according to an Ernst and Young report.

“That’s exactly what we can’t afford,” said Oakey, a retired accountant. “We definitely need a new courthouse. … But I quite frankly don’t think that if they put it on the ballot at somewhere between $300 million and $350 million, it will pass.”

The county is negotiating a contract with consultant URS Corp. to continue managing the remainder of the project, including public outreach ahead of a bond election and help with preliminary designs of the building. The firm would also help find a separate contractor to handle the final design and construction of the courthouse and help oversee the work at the downtown site, on the block south of Republic Square Park.

“The place we need to get fairly quickly is asking, ‘What are we talking about building? How big? What are the features that the judges say they need?’” Daugherty said.

The ultimate design of the building, and in turn its cost, will be determined by commissioners, working with URS.


Two courthouses

Travis County (projections)

$340 million

15 stories

510,000 square feet

500-car underground parking garage

31 courtrooms

Broward County (under construction)

$213 million

20 stories

714,000 square feet

500-car above-ground parking garage

77 courtrooms

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One thought on “Helping Travis County Reduce the Cost of the New Courthouse

  1. Paul Mullen

    Muddled thinking about needs, old-fashioned ways of working which get enshrined in tradition, and inappropriate desires to build a world class monument. Result high cost.

    Start thinking about the nature of civil cases. Mostly long drawn out discussions between rival attorneys, few get to court, when they do they typically require small evidentiary hearings with no jury until the final trial. But mostly they are settled without a jury’s help. So how many hours a week is each civil courtroom actually used for a jury trial, or for any proceeedings which attract more than the attorneys involved? Could even these hearings simply be held in judge’s chambers? If law requires a haring to be in public but there is little chance anyone will want to see it, could closed circuit TV be an option?

    Does each civil judge really need his own courtroom? Perhaps most hearings could be held in judges chambers? Or perhaps small courtrooms with no jury box would suffice for most hearings, then judges could share the larger courtrooms for the few occasions they are needed?

    Next, a large part of the extra cost in Travis over Broward is the high rise construction with underground parking. This is necessitated by the decision to build the new courthouse downtown. Placing courtrooms on a site near the present Travis County Clerk’s offices, with surface parking would save a vast amount. Such a site would be far more convenient for plaintiffs, defendants, jurors, and staff. It would however be less convenient for attorneys with offices near the present courthouse until we realise that the only reason they have offices in that expensive part of town is to be near the courthouse! So moving away from downtown would only be a short-term inconvenience for lawyers, once they relocate nearer to the new courthouse, their new office locations would have lower rents, probably more modern offices and be easier for clients to reach. Travis County say they are planning a long term solution, so why are they constrained by short-term issues like this?

    Bottom line, has anyone studied how these courtrooms are used ?

    Reply

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