By Bill Oakey – November 9, 2015
Many Travis County taxpayers breathed a momentary sigh of relief after the votes were counted, showing that the $287 million courthouse bonds were defeated. But in the halls of the Travis County Commissioners and in lawyers’ offices downtown, the mood was very close to panic mode. They are all still reeling. A recent law passed by the Texas Legislature places the County in a veritable straitjacket. They are prohibited from issuing any debt for projects in a failed bond proposition for three years.
It is too late now for County officials to ponder what went “wrong.” What needs to happen quickly is a major shift in thinking about the new courthouse. The voters have spoken. They chose not to spend that amount of money on the type of facility that was proposed. Here are some of my thoughts on how to move forward with new plans for the courthouse:
1. Downsize the Design Ambitions for the New Courthouse
Travis County has probably spent in excess of $10 million on consultants and staff time for the courthouse planning to date. The most basic starting point for any such plan is determining how big of a courthouse that we need. The County staff worked up a report that estimates we would need space for 35 judges and 33 courtrooms between now and 2035. But how seriously did anyone question those estimates? Today we have 19 civil and family courts. It does not appear to me that we have added new courts in recent years at such a rapid pace that a target number of 33 is justified. Do we really need a courthouse as tall as the Frost Bank Tower?
The new courthouse was envisioned to be a state of the art facility with every modern innovation in place. One point in particular caught my attention. The hallways were planned to be several times wider than what exists in the current courthouse. It’s one thing to build something that is less cramped and more safe for those visit the courthouse. But floor after floor of the new building should not require enormously vast hallway space. From an affordability perspective, the taxpayers would probably prefer the building to be much better than the old courthouse, but something less than a Cadillac standard of perfection.
2. Take a Fresh Look at the Security Needs for the New Facility
It is true that family violence, child custody and divorce cases can pose a serious security risk. Abuse victims should not have to ride in the same elevator or sit next to their perpetrators in the hallway. Children especially should have a safe and secure place to stay while in the courthouse. But there are large numbers of civil cases that do not come with the same high level of risk. Think about issues like insurance disputes, eminent domain cases and various other civil matters. Even adoption cases are fairly low-level in terms of security needs. Why couldn’t the building be divided into high security and lesser security sections? It is my understanding that the vast amounts of thick and heavy glass in the construction design contribute the most to the high cost. In a hybrid design scenarios, the internal and external construction materials for the lesser security sections would be much less expensive. Such a configuration could require some judges to move between sections to try different types of cases. If that should become necessary, then so be it. All reasonable measures to bring down the courthouse costs should be considered.
3. Work with the Legislature to Try to Amend the Debt Restriction Law
Three years seems like an unreasonable time to have to wait for another bond election. Perhaps our County officials could work with the Legislature to come up with an amendment to the law for constitutionally mandated functions like building and maintaining adequate court facilities. The sooner the law could be changed is in January 2017. That’s a little over a year away. We could potentially have another election in May or November of 2017. At least that’s better than a three-year wait.
4. Take the Time to Tally Up the Land Sale Revenues and Other Offsets to Reduce the Bond Price
Travis County Commissioners were wise to consider the sale of several County-owned properties to generate revenue to offset the cost of the bonds. However, those sale transactions could not be completed in time for this year’s bond election. Now, however, there will be sufficient time for the properties to be sold before the next bond elections, thus allowing the size of the ballot initiative to be reduced. In addition, County officials should factor in estimates for the potential parking revenues and the lease receipts from private usage of excess space in the building. Another significant revenue stream will come from the sale or lease of the second half of the property that the County intends to put out for bids to private developers. Once all of these revenue sources have been nailed down and summarized, the voters can be presented with a much clearer estimate of the tax impact of a new courthouse.
Is There Any Possible Way to Build a New Courthouse Without Waiting Three More Years?
On the surface, the answer would seem to be no. The financing options appear to be limited to a choice between bonds or certificates of obligation, or else cash appropriated straight out of the annual budget. However, there is one other option that has been used in other places. In Long Beach, California a new courthouse opened in 2013 that was built with upfront funding from a private consortium. The $340 million cost plus interest will be repaid by the State of California over the next 35 years. Of course, Texas does not pay for county courthouses. And I’m not sure if it would be legal for Travis County to bypass the voters and enter into an agreement with private developers to build a large courthouse. It would still be a debt-based transaction and could run afoul of the newly passed law requiring the three-year waiting period.
An Offer of Desperately Needed Help for the Judges and Lawyers
During the recent bond campaign, residents were treated to large glossy postcards featuring pictures of monster-sized rats. These hideous creatures reminded me of the B grade 1959 horror film, “The Killer Shrews” (See the YouTube trailer here, or the entire movie here). While I cannot speak for all of the taxpayers, the County certainly has my personal permission to invest in a few packages of rat poison, if not a friendly call to a pest control service to alleviate the problem. The same goes for fixing the leaky roof. However, I would hesitate to suggest hiring a consultant to develop plans for those endeavors.