By Bill Oakey
September 11, 2013
As a battle-scarred veteran of City Hall skirmishes dating back to the 1980’s, I jumped into the fray with the County Commissioners Court, not knowing what to expect. It all started a few months ago when I started questioning the $300+ million cost of the proposed new Civil and Family Courthouse.
Not having access to high paid consultants, I sat down at my computer and tried a Google search for “new County Courthouse.” After browsing through several small town projects, I hit the jackpot with Broward County, Florida. They have a new courthouse under construction that is half the cost per square foot than the one being proposed here.
Armed with pages of detail, I drafted a summary and emailed it to all five members of the Travis County Commissioners Court. Within just a few minutes, I received a polite and friendly response from Commissioner Margaret Gomez. From that day forward, the entire Court has been very helpful and supportive of ideas for saving taxpayer money.
In the case of County Judge Sam Biscoe, I was particularly impressed with his patience and fair minded approach to dealing with citizens. This even includes the flying-saucer-conspiracy-nut-cases that show up for Citizens Communications. I met with Judge Biscoe for a full hour. His response to my courthouse research was to place an item on the agenda to seek a formal staff review of cost saving options derived from other courthouse projects.
The meetings I had with other Commissioners were positive as well, regardless of political party affiliation. We discussed holding the line on the overall budget. Commissioners Todd, Daugherty, and Gomez all told me about their steps in that direction. I even received emails with some details of their cost saving efforts.
On Tuesday, Sept. 10th, the Commissioners Court took up Judge Biscoe’s agenda item for a staff review of comparative costs for new courthouses. I walked up to the front table and took a seat between two staff members. I’m sure they were wondering “Who in the heck is that guy? (I ask myself that same question all the time).
An idea had come to me earlier that morning, as I sat in the Court and waited. When it was my turn to speak, I sprang it on the Commissioners. “Please direct the staff to make this courthouse a national model of cost-effectiveness and efficiency,” I asked. Judge Biscoe obliged and inserted those words into his memo.
Here’s a little secret about how I got that idea. I found a passage in one of the thick consultant reports on the new courthouse. They were promising to deliver a “World Class Facility / A Grand Public Building.” That got me to thinking about the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I could see a consultant carrying two buckets full of reports. Each report proposes a taller and even more expensive building. Then, like the brooms in the original story, the single consultant morphs into two, carrying four buckets. Then there are eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on.
I decided to speak up before the chickens (Sorcerer) came home to roost!