Tag Archives: Travis County courthouse

Courthouse Dilemma Calls for Creative Solutions

By Bill Oakey – November 9, 2015

New Courts for Families - "We need a safe environment for women and children."

New Courts for Families – “Yikes, the rats! We need a safe environment for women and children.”

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.

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

and;
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.

Austin And Travis County Should Announce Joint Affordability Initiative

By Bill Oakey – July 15, 2015

In about 7 weeks the City of Austin and Travis County will each have to finalize their Fiscal Year 2016 budgets that will take effect on October 1st. For the past several years, citizens throughout the area have been clamoring for major steps toward affordability. Today I am calling upon City and County officials to make some decisions on what affordability measures and proposals they will include in their new budgets, and to make a public announcement telling the citizens what their affordability plans are. As I have said many times in public presentations – the time for talking about affordability is behind us. The time for action is now.

The Austin American-Statesman has repeatedly editorialized on the need to slow down the growth of the City Budget in particular. Austin’s downtown has added countless high rise buildings that should be adding to the tax base and making it easier to pay for expanding City Services. The same is true for neighborhoods all over town that have seen gigantic new resort-style apartment structures that take up a full block. Traditional neighborhoods in all parts of Austin have seen older homes scraped off and replaced with expensive luxury housing.

So that leaves us with a fundamental question. Where is all the increased tax revenue from all of those high-priced new buildings going? Why are our property taxes continuing to rise so rapidly that people are being priced out of their homes?

What Is the Bottom Line On the Growth of the City and County Budgets?

What you are about to see is not a pretty picture. Notice the rapid increases in the general fund in both of these budgets. That is the fund that is paid for with property taxes, sales taxes and some of the fees

City of Austin
  2010 2015 % Increase
General Fund $614,915,000 $854,040,000 38.9%
Total Budget $2,747,105,000 $3,493,973,000 27.2%

Travis County
  2010 2015 % Increase
General Fund $455,661,280 $650,897,476 42.8%
Total Budget $655,140,525 $910,988,941 39.1%

Has Affordability Been Addressed In These Past Budgets?

You will find that word sprinkled quite liberally throughout the current FY 2015 City Budget. In fact, in Volume 1, it graces the pages no less than 29 times. On Page A-8 within City Manager Marc Ott’s cover letter, he issues the following pronouncement with italics included:

“Carefully balances the service demands of a growing community with ongoing concerns over affordability by proposing a full penny decrease in the tax rate.”

That statement contrasts with the opening sentence on the very first page of the Budget:

“This budget will raise more revenue from property taxes than last year’s budget by an amount of $29,970,162, which is a 6.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The property tax revenue to be raised from new property added to the tax roll this year is $8,375,296.”

What that means is that existing property owners paid the overwhelming bulk of the tax increase, to the tune of $21,594,866. The word “tax” appears 298 times in the first volume of the three-volume document. The word “fee” shows up 277 times. But, alas, on Page A-15 “affordability” gets its own section heading, with the title “Maintaining Affordability.” Most of the initiatives listed pertain to subsidies and assistance to low-income and senior residents. These are, of course, very worthy programs. But the bottom line for the average homeowner is that total property taxes for all of the taxing entities in Central Texas increased 6.1%, as shown on Page A-16. And that does not include the relentless forward march of the various “add-on fees” that appear on our utility bills.

What Can the Taxpayers Expect Over the Next Five Years?

You would probably be less frightened by spending a weekend alone in a haunted castle during a thunderstorm, while reading a Stephen King novel. But if you care to take a look, here is a glimpse of Page 60 in the City’s current Five Year Financial Forecast:

City of Austin Property Tax Assumptions

Fiscal Year Projected Assessed Valuation Growth Projected Total Tax Rate Projected Operations & Maintenance Revenue
FY 2016 9.0% (actual amount is 11%) 0.4782 $385,500,000
FY 2017 7.0% 0.4850 $420,900,000
FY 2018 7.0% 0.4860 $452,500,000
FY 2019 5.0% 0.5008 $492,700,000
FY 2020 5.0% 0.5192 $540,100,000

This chart assumes that property values and tax rates would both increase at the same time. If that were to happen, it would be in stark contrast from current policy, which has been to reduce the tax rate somewhat, to offset the increase in property assessments. In any case, the City’s O&M revenues are projected to increase 40.1% over the five years. When you look at percentage increases, keep one important factor in mind. As the base dollar amount continues to increase, the percentage applied to that base derives a progressively increasing amount. The same is true of your home valuation and your tax increases. The taxable amount of your home value is capped by law at 10% per year. So, if your home started out a few years ago being valued at $200,000, the 10% cap meant that you could only be taxed at $220,000. That’s a $20,000 increase. But once the value of that same home has doubled to $400,000, then the 10% cap yields a taxable value that is $40,000 higher. This year, as the TCAD map shows, Austin has many zip codes with home appraisal increases into the double digits. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

That’s all the more reason why our City and County officials need to come together and decide on an affordability agenda to be incorporated into their upcoming budgets. A failure to adopt meaningful near-term and long-term reforms would only intensify our already critical economic divide.

Should We Vote to Approve Bonds for a New County Courthouse?

There is no question that Travis County needs a new Civil and Family Courthouse. It is my understanding that no other area taxing entity will place any additional bonds on the November ballot. The current price tag is pegged at $291 million. But Travis County officials are working feverishly to come up with strategies to offset the cost. Discussions have included using fees from after hours parking at the courthouse, certain rental receipts from other County properties, and the sale of other County owned land. Between now and the November election, we will know more about the total amount of those offsets. In addition, the firm that is awarded the contract to build the courthouse could potentially make some design changes that would make the project more efficient.

No decision has yet been made as to whether this blog will endorse the courthouse bonds. But I am hopeful that both the City and the County will join together and demonstrate to the community a serious commitment to affordability. The Travis County Commissioners that I have met with have laid out some innovative ideas for cost-savings, through County-specific initiatives as well as cooperative strategies with the City. Both bodies have appointed representatives to the Regional Affordability Committee. At my suggestion, that committee has embarked on the development of an Affordability Strategic Plan. If the local voters are shown that affordability efforts will finally bear fruit with tangible results, then they are much more likely to stand behind the County Commissioners’ recommendation and vote to approve the courthouse bonds.

New Travis County Courthouse Is Much Too Expensive!

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.