By Bill Oakey – November 4, 2015
It is hard to overstate the historic significance of the failure of Travis County’s bond proposition for a new civil and family courthouse. In the 44 years that I have lived in Austin, I can’t think of another time when a major Travis County bond proposition failed. The voters here have consistently approved bonds for new infrastructure, whether it be for roads, buildings on land acquisition. But this time was different…Why?
That is the question that the Travis County Commissioners and their staff should be asking right now. Rather than pounding their fists and insisting that the voters did the wrong thing, they really need to take a few deep breaths and think about why the bond proposition failed. In the minds of the pro-bond fundraising groups there was only one side to the argument – We need a new courthouse, the old one is dilapidated. End of discussion.
The reality is that most Travis County residents do not disagree that we need a new courthouse and that the old one has long since outlived its useful life cycle. But that reality just happens to bump up against another one – affordability. This year’s round of sky-high tax appraisals hit everybody like a punch in the gut. When people are seriously scared about whether they will be able to afford to stay in their homes, their willingness to vote for tax increases becomes severely strained.
So, Where Does Travis County Go From Here?
There is no question that heads are rolling downtown at the County offices. As much as the County Commissioners would like to find a quick solution for the badly needed courthouse, there is a new State law that will probably slow them down. Apparently, a bill that was passed in last year’s Legislative session mandated that counties must wait 3 years after a bond election to issue any new debt for a project that fails. County officials are working as we speak to determine exactly what their options are for pursuing any construction of a new courthouse.
The Big Missed Opportunity That Helped Lead to the Current Mess
The date was September 10, 2013. The Travis County Commissioners held a regular meeting on that date. Agenda Item # 18 addressed several items related to the proposed new courthouse. The 4th bullet speaks to my recommendation that the courthouse should be conceived as a “national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency.”
From the Commissioners Court Minutes for September 10, 2013
18. Consider and take appropriate action regarding the costs and engineering and architectural features of certain recently constructed civil and/or family courthouses.
Members of the Court heard from:
Belinda Powell, Capital Planning Coordinator, PBO
Roger El Khoury, Director, Facilities Management Department (FMD) Bill Oakey, Travis County resident
Clerk’s Note: Judge Biscoe circulated a memo requesting staff to ascertain certain information regarding recently built courthouses in other jurisdictions.
MOTION: Approve the information listed in Judge Biscoe’s backup memo plus five additional points:
o Delivery method;
o Soft costs and hard costs;
o Any cost reduction measures;
o Strive to achieve a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency
o Whether Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment (FF&E) are included in the
The Motion Passed Unanimously. But What Happened Next?
The answer is simple and most unfortunate – Nothing!
In 2014 I was appointed to the Community Focus Committee for the proposed new courthouse. I was under the impression that this committee would function in an advisory capacity. However, we never performed any advisory role and we never interacted with the County Commissioners. Instead, we attended meetings where we were briefed by the staff and two sets of consultants on the progress and status of the courthouse planning efforts.
I brought up the fact that the County Commissioners adopted my stipulation that the courthouse should become a “national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency” on at least two occasions. But no one ever brought forth any cost containment strategies. No discussion of alternative cost scenarios was ever presented to us. In fact, our committee was never even briefed on the estimated cost of the courthouse until the same week that it was scheduled to be presented to the Commissioners Court.
Shortly after the high cost of the proposed courthouse was announced, I submitted my resignation from the Focus Committee. It’s too late now, but if the taxpayers’ concerns about affordability had been taken seriously, perhaps the courthouse bond proponents would be celebrating a victory this week instead of wringing their hands in defeat.