Travis County’s HUGE Wake-Up Call – So, Where Do We Go From Here?

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
total cost.

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.


6 thoughts on “Travis County’s HUGE Wake-Up Call – So, Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. Highland junkie

    TC Comm Court should work with ACC BofT to buy a portion of the eastern side of the Highland Mall tract for the new Courthouse and twice the parking that would have been DT. Plenty of room there for ACC, Redleaf (west), and Travis County (east). No new land off the tax roles. Would justify further mass transit to Highland Mall. Different project than what we just voted on, so could be voted on again in a year. After all the prior is approved, sell the lot DT at 2 to 3 times what was paid for it, paying off the debt still owed on buying that lot. That’s a win, win, win solution.

    1. Heidi Gibbons

      What a great idea! I agree with you – sell the downtown lot to the highest bidder and let the people of Travis County benefit from that sale by putting the funds into a new but downsized courthouse with plenty of FREE parking. Then let’s all get to work on the rail and other travel solutions.

  2. AKenner

    As a county taxpayer, I was quite pleased the bond election failed. Thank you for the work you are doing, it is largely because of your posts on this issue I voted no.

  3. Vince May

    Why does it have to be 1 giant building? Do we have 1 giant school for all children to go to? Do we have 1 giant hospital for all sick people? (Back in the 80’s the City of Austin sued in court to block the construction of South Austin Community Hospital because they said there were too many hospitals already, and they wanted people to use Brackenridge. Even people who were dying of a heart attack and might not survive the extra drive time!)

    I would think 3 court houses, possibly 4 if the current one is kept open, would be better than 1 big monstrosity. I live on the county line out past Manor. Why should I have to go into congested downtown Austin? A court at Highland Mall would cut my travel time in half. It could be built for less than $50 million. (My wild guess.) It could be done fast and provide immediate relief at the existing facility.

    Wait 5 years and then build a south facility near Ben White for another $50 million. That takes another load off of the existing court. Then build one west, maybe near 620 @ 2222. This not only reduces the cost and makes the courts more accesible to the PEOPLE, it also phases in the cost and interest bite. Future residents will share a much larger portion of the cost, keeping our tax rates lower now.

    Now I will answer my own question. The huge monstrosity downtown was planned as a transit stop. Transit advocates can’t justify light rail unless they have huge numbers of people going to central locations downtown. In other words, the project was designed to serve TRANSIT, not people.

    The $287 million cost of the court project is chump change compared to the cost of the planned train projects. They would cost another $10 billion. The City of Austin and Travis County have already voted to increase property taxes to pay a portion of the train costs. The only way to dodge the planned multi billion dollar property tax increases for trains is to begin the process of decentralization. That’s why I voted against the bond.

  4. Heidi Gibbons

    Another great idea and you are right – we have neighborhood schools throughout Austin – why not courts – north, south, east and west?. Or is the courthouse for the convenience of the judges and not the consumers? There must be judges who live in other parts of town and would appreciate not having to make that long, crazy drive!

  5. Craig

    About the land, I work in commercial real estate and I heard the county outbid the private buyers by an amount that was considered absurd. It’s as if they had no advisor and definitely no competent or experienced people engaged in the land purchase process. If this is true, the county will lose money on the sale of the land, so I guess it’ll just sit there and continue to be an ugly parking lot across the street from a great city park as selling for a loss will make the county folks look even more incompetent.

    I’m glad the proposal was defeated for many reasons but the idea of a second courthouse across from Republic Park was sickening to me. The city doesn’t need another government dead-block in an area that is growing with residential density and retail.


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