By Bill Oakey – April 2, 2015
My apologies for getting off to such a slow start with the blog this year. 2014 was a very busy time leading up to the City Council elections. That took an abundance of watchdogging and tons of energy. So, now it’s time to take a fresh look at both the City and the County. We need to remain vigilant and ensure that enough folks are looking out for the taxpayers.
The first order of business is to inform you that Travis County has gone far astray in their planning for a much needed new civil and family courthouse. Early last year I was appointed to serve on a Community Focus Committee to review the progress of the project. Unfortunately, my hopes for a cost effective plan have been completely dashed. You will find the details in my letter to the County Commissioners below.
Hello Travis County Commissioners:
I have decided to resign my position as a member of the Community Focus Committee On The Civil and Family Courthouse (CFC).
Please know that this has been a very difficult decision. I have served on the committee since its inception, and did so intending to make a vital contribution to the process. However, as an independent advocate for the local taxpayers, I have concluded that the high cost of the Civil and Family Courthouse cannot be justified. The members of the CFC are actively engaged in educating the community on the project. Without my wholehearted support of the $300 million project, I do not believe that my continued service on the committee would be helpful.
As you may recall, I have been active since 2013 in researching the cost of new civil and family courthouses across the country. I was able to identify one in Broward County, Florida that cost roughly half the price per square foot as the being planned for Travis County. After sharing this information with County officials, I felt confident that we could reduce the cost of our project accordingly.
At their September 13, 2013 meeting, I asked the Travis County Commissioners for a resolution calling upon the consultants to ensure that our new courthouse would be designed as “a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.” This language was adopted by the Court unanimously.
Upon my appointment to the CFC, I anticipated much discussion from County staff and the consultants on steps being taken to achieve the status of a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency. However, this topic was only touched upon lightly, and did not reflect anything close to what I would consider a serious commitment. We were not presented with innovative strategies that would significantly reduce the cost of the project. Instead, we were told fairly recently that factors such as “the hot real estate market in Austin” and “the high cost of labor” will make it necessary to build the courthouse at a cost very close to $300 million.
I cannot point to even one concrete example of a unique cost effectiveness or efficiency planning or design initiative that was presented to our committee. Nor can I recall one single example of such an element that other counties across the United States could look to and say that we established a “national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.”
What appears quite likely now is a scenario similar to what happened in Broward County, Florida when their proposed courthouse was first placed on a bond ballot. The voters overwhelmingly rejected it. This forced their County officials to delay the project and embark on a much more cost effective plan that would be acceptable to the taxpayers.
Just this past November, Austin voters approved a $386 million construction package for Austin Community College. This price tag included construction of a main campus at Highland Mall, plus renovations for quite a few other buildings. And yet, County taxpayers will soon be asked to pony up $300 million for just one downtown building. This bond proposal is likely to fail, just like the first one in Broward County, Florida.
Let there be no mistake about it, Travis County is badly in need of a new civil and family courthouse. In fact, that need is long overdue. However, I think it would behoove the members of the Commissioners Court to re-examine the current project with its high cost and come up with a streamlined proposal that would place a much smaller burden on the taxpayers.
I strongly believe that some serious fundamental questions were not addressed in the early planning for this project. Please consider the following points and how they relate to the courthouse project:
1. Travis County now has 16 civil and family courts. And yet they want to build a huge skyscraper the size of the Frost Bank Tower to house those courts. We have been told the increased space will be needed to handle court expansion well into the future. But has Travis County really seen that much of an exponential expansion of civil and family courts in recent years? Has there been a definite trend towards increasing the number of courts in sufficient numbers to justify such a large, expensive building?
2. Wouldn’t some of the money being proposed for such a large courthouse building be better spent toward programs for conflict resolution and better coordination between City, County and non-profit social programs? Such an effort could reduce the number of cases that ultimately wind up going to court.
3. Austin’s overwhelming traffic, water and affordability issues will pose serious challenges for planners with the City, County, AISD, ACC and Central Health. We will need bonds for transportation improvements. AISD will need bonds for building improvements and new schools. The City and County will both need bond money for various projects to keep pace with growth. We face ongoing pressure on water and electric rates as a result of the water crisis and the high cost of maintaining the electric grid.
Taxpayers can only absorb so much. Therefore, we look to our leaders for smart planning and the best judgment possible on every project that comes before us to consider. The lavish and expensive building that is being proposed for the new courthouse might have been acceptable in an earlier time when the cost of living in Austin was not as high as it is today. We simply cannot afford a “business as usual” approach to a project as important as the badly needed new courthouse.
I urge the Commissioners to please think long and hard about the September 10, 2013 resolution I proposed that was adopted unanimously. Then go back to the drawing board and plan a new civil and family courthouse that does indeed represent a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.