Tag Archives: Travis County

Would You Vote For $600 Million In City Bond Projects – Every Year For Five Years In A Row?

By Bill Oakey, December 6, 2017

Think of our city as one big extended family. That family has to look out for each of its members. Now, put that into context with your own family. The holiday shopping season is now underway. Your inbox overflows with tempting cyber-this and hyper-that offers. All you have to do is type in your credit card number and click…

But somewhere in the pit of your stomach, you know it’s not quite that simple. Your family has to stay within a budget. You and your spouse, the kids, and the other folks on your shopping list  can only have what your family can afford. Unless, that is, you are reckless enough to pile on the debt and t refuse to take it seriously.

In 2014, Austin voters faced a billion dollar bond election for one sliver of a citywide urban rail system. We were told then that it would double the City’s outstanding debt. We voted against those bonds for several reasons, even though many of us support rail in a general transportation plan. So, here we are three years later. The City’s Bond Election Review Task Force really is considering $3 billion in bond-funded projects over the next five years.

Look at the big picture here. Where does that leave Travis County? What about AISD, ACC and Central Health? And where does it keave us as taxpayers? The City Budget is so tight that its share of our property taxes are in danger of doubling in nine years. And with new debt on top of that, it could be even worse.

I was a little rough on AISD in a recent blog posting. When their CFO reached out to me, I softened just a little, and requested a meeting to talk things over. Wish me luck as I try to convince AISD to stay very close to their low estimate on the cost to refurbish their new headquarters building.

Let’s try to end this on a brighter note. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt gets it. In fact, here’s how she painted the picture when we discussed the long list of “needs” that our local governments think they have to have. She said this, “If you load too many ornaments on the Christmas tree, it will topple over.” Then she graciously accepted the challenge to work with the City, starting early next year on a “Go Big” on affordability initiative. I have since received some positive signals from City Council members.

Enjoy the holidays with your family. But don’t click too many of those online offers without remembering your wallet!

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Piece

1. “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” – Elmo & Patsy
2. “Christmas In Jail” – Asleep at the Wheel
3. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – Gayla Peevey
4. “Nuttin’ for Christmas” – Barry Gordon
5. “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” – Allan Sherman
6. “Monster Holiday” – Lon Chaney
7. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” – Spike Jones
8. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – Jimmy Boyd

Questions About The New I-35 Proposal That Need Answers

By Bill Oakey – November 2, 2017

The new “Capital Express” proposal to improve I-35 may be the most important Austin transportation initiative in our lifetime. To not “get it right” would be a monumental mistake. Every local official has a big stake in the process. I believe that the City and Travis County should review the proposal, consider it carefully, and get clear, detailed answers to several very serious questions.

TxDot’s initial announcement to the media was severely lacking in the most basic, common-sense details that almost any citizen would want to know. As a result, the public reaction in comments to the American-Statesman and other forums ranges from skepticism to outright condemnation. The announcement was a major public relations disaster.

Here is a list of questions that I am asking our local officials to pose to TxDot and the principal players who developed the proposal. Of course I respect the fact that they may have additional questions of their own.

These Are Very Basic Questions

1. If the highway will not be made any wider, how would the proposal add vehicle capacity?

2. Does the plan add new lanes by making all lanes narrower, as was done on MoPac?

3. What will be the total number of lanes in each direction?

4. If the upper deck from MLK to Airport Blvd. is eliminated, wouldn’t that by itself result in a net loss of vehicle capacity?

5. Why not keep the upper deck and preserve that vehicle capacity?

6. What is the total number of lane-miles on I-35 today vs. total lane-miles under the Capital Express proposal?

7. What is the net gain or net loss in free lane-miles?

8. Why not have just two managed toll lanes instead of four?

9. Starting from this year’s vehicle load, how many additional vehicles are projected to be using I-35 over the next 10 or 15 years? And does the Capital Express Proposal meet that need?

10. Are there any maps, sketches or diagrams that show a net gain in lane capacity under the proposal?

11. Are there any other metrics known today or being planned that would provide additional assurance that this proposal will in fact relieve traffic congestion along the Austin portion of I-35?

Please understand that the $8 billion price tag, combined with the unpopular notion of more toll lanes begs for the clearest possible explanation to the public as to why this plan is the best plan that could have been devised.

A New Transportation Vision for Austin

By Bill Oakey, May 4, 2017

Close your eyes and picture yourself driving to work on a crowded Austin roadway. Think about all of the cars that you see around you and every one that goes by.  Then ask yourself one simple question. How many people do you see in each one of those cars?  The answer is just as simple…

ONE!

So, the key to solving Austin’s traffic dilemma is to finally find a way to get more people into fewer vehicles on the daily commute to and from their workplace.  Capital Metro is our only current mass transit provider. Unfortunately, their model is a very outdated and severely limited centralized bus system. Their new 2025 plan is all about continuing this model, and even making mass transit more limited for the people who don’t live near a centralized corridor.

This old-fashioned model works well in a small compact city, with nearly all neighborhoods located close to the center of the city. But Austin has long since outgrown that model with untold numbers of residents living well beyond the narrow boundaries served by Capital Metro. To make matters worse, their consultant-inspired 2025 plan actually eliminates many popular routes used by people who live less than a couple of miles from downtown. One of the bus routes slated for elimination is the #21/22 Exposition bus that serves Tarrytown. The entire neighborhood is in an uproar. We are at the mercy of the Capital Metro board, who probably never even ride their own buses.

So, What Is a Better Solution for Commuter Transit?

My proposal would probably require a big push from both the City of Austin and Travis County to get Capital Metro to implement a new decentralized model that would serve neighborhoods without any current bus routes. The plan calls for a variety of vehicle types to be dispatched to neighborhoods throughout the City and County every weekday. Here are the elements of the proposal:

  1.  Capital Metro should solicit input from medium to large-scale Austin employers to determine which of their workers would like to use the service, and what their addresses are. Then, routes would be determined throughout the greater Austin area, based on where people live and where they work.
  2. Vehicles of different sizes, ranging from cars to vans to buses, would be dispatched to take the commuters to and from work every day.
  3. A team of planners could work out the details on how to set up this new system. Employers could help with some of the cost of the service. And the rates for the passengers could be determined as well.
  4. Capital Metro could still operate a Central City bus system. But pouring every dollar of their available money into expanding that model would only help a small percentage of the people who need mass transit.

Some may ask, what about the light rail option? Realistically, it is probably too late for Austin to build a major rail system. The first $1 billion leg that failed in the 2014 bond election would have doubled our general obligation debt. Taxpayers are not likely to support the $12 billion to $15 or $20 billion cost of a citywide rail system. We missed our chance, unfortunately. It might have been possible if we had started it before 2000.

The sort of comprehensive approach that I suggest would make a major dent in the number of cars on the roads every day during morning evening rush periods. To play devil’s advocate, someone might ask how Capital Metro could employ drivers who only have two pickups per day on these routes. The answer to that question is simple. We live in an age of transportation networking. The large pool of TNC drivers could participate in this new system. They would have to be allowed to drive for this new service, in addition to their work with the TNC’s.

Of course, a system such as this would be a sea change for Capital Metro. It would totally disrupt their current plans and their projected annual budgets. But I strongly believe that we need an innovative approach to solving our transportation problems. We can’t build roads fast enough to accommodate all of the people. And the prevailing push for more and more toll roads is becoming ridiculously expensive, even to think about, much less for anybody to pay for. We have a broken system that needs public support for real improvement. If it turns out that Capital Metro cannot be convinced to embrace the type of change that is needed, then perhaps they should be dissolved, and a new transportation entity should be created to take their place. An early 1900’s model simply will not serve the needs of a growing 21st century city like Austin.

 

Let’s Seal The Deal On Hamilton Pool Fees

By Bill Oakey – June 1, 2016

Last week I wrote a very tongue-in-cheek criticism of Travis County officials for their new method of charging fees to visit the Hamilton Pool Reserve. Behind the scenes, however, I have a very good working relationship with the Travis County Commissioners Court. I simply could not resist jumping into the pool fray on this blog. Now, the ball is in their Court, literally. I have reached out to Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s office, since his Precinct 3 is where the park is located. My suggestions for reforming the fee structure and the method of collecting the fees, taking reservations, etc. will be considered and reviewed with the appropriate County Parks staff.

Now, here comes my favorite research question again…

How Do They Do This Kind of Thing In Other Counties and Other States?

Well, I found some answers. And this is how I think we can close the deal – signed, sealed and delivered. In the section below the picture, I will lay out the differences in rules and policies in other places, side by side with how it’s now being done during Hamilton Pool’s peak season here in Travis County.

The handshake after the deal is sealed

The handshake after the deal is sealed

Side By Side Comparison Of Rules and Procedures

The Travis County information is taken directly from this Travis County Parks Webpage.

Reservation Date Change Policy

Travis County: “Once you make your reservation, you cannot change the date.” (This means that if you are a tourist or are otherwise unable to go on a later date, then you forfeit the $10.00 registration fee).

Santa Barbara, California Parks (found here): “To change or modify a reservation, please complete and submit an online Reservation Change Form.

Reservation Refund Policy

Travis County: “Reservations are not refundable.”

Santa Barbara Parks (found here): “Reservations cancelled within 24 hours of making the reservation are eligible for a full refund.”

Reservation Payment Policy – Credit Cards vs. Cash or Check

Travis County: “You pay online for your reservation fee, and pay for your (separate) entrance fee with cash or local check when you arrive at the preserve.” (This means that if you don’t have a credit card because you are economically disadvantaged, then you cannot make a reservation, and therefore, you cannot come to the park).

Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas (found here under FAQ’s & Info): “Reservations made online through this system must be paid at the time of reservation with a major credit card. We accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover. Reservations can be made in person with cash or check. If you would to make a reservation in person, please visit our office downtown.” (Travis County could go further, by offering this service both downtown and in other office locations).

Why Does Travis County Need Two Separate Fees for Hamilton Pool?

The dual reservation plus entrance fee policy has resulted in a dramatic skyward leap for the total cost, from $15 per vehicle to $26. Parks staff have told the Commissioners Court that there are “too many tiers” of entrance fees to allow them to charge each visitor a single up-front fee. Visitors on bicycles, pass holders and seniors with discounts all pay different entrance fees. But the last time I booked anything online, I found a wide range of options and I never questioned whether the 21st century computer system could handle the complexity.

It would seem to be far more efficient and certainly more convenient for the park visitors to make just one up-front payment to cover both the reservation and the entrance fee. And as I mentioned in my previous blog posting, the County is saving huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and resources during the peak season for Hamilton Pool. Much fewer Parks staff are needed without the overflow crowds and the parking madness that occurred before the new reservation system was adopted. So, logically, the total fees charged to the park users should be lower, rather than higher, than they were under the old system. Does the County Park system need more overall funding in the budget? If so, that is a separate issue altogether, and it should not create an undue burden for Hamilton Pool visitors.

A Few Words About Customer Service and a Friendly, Welcoming Approach

Visitors and citizens of Travis Country are the guests of the hosts who provide the public services. Our County officials should not let themselves be outdone by California or anyplace else when it comes to the Gold Standard of Excellence that they should strive to achieve. Policies should be as flexible, convenient and socioeconomically inclusive as possible. All of our parks should be accessible to anyone who wishes to come and enjoy them.

SL-3

Hamilton_Pool

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

  1. “Signed, Sealed And Delivered” – Rusty Draper, 1961
  2. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” – Stevie Wonder, 1970
  3. “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things” – The Cowsills, 1967
  4. “All The Gold In California” – Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band, 1979
  5. “Coward Of The County” – Kenny Rogers, 1980

Hamilton Pool Fee Earns First “Unaffordability Award” For Travis County

By Bill Oakey – May 25, 2016

This is the time of year for congratulating all kinds of citizens. Students are graduating, many of them with honors and distinctions, from high schools and colleges across Central Texas. Very soon, the June wedding season will begin, with beaming grooms and smiling brides celebrating and being congratulated by their families and friends.

My nephew, Nathan and his bride, Amanda at their June, 2002 wedding

My nephew, Nathan and his bride, Amanda at their June, 2002 wedding

For all of those reasons, I am very disappointed that May 2016 just happens to be the time when Travis County receives the very first “downer” award from this blog. We sometimes hear sour notes in music, and awards can be given for negative recognition. So, today we announce an un-congratulatory, “Unaffordability Award” for Travis County.*

The Hamilton Pool Reservation Fee Fiasco – A Fantastical Foray Into Fiscal Foolishness

As of May 15, the Travis County Parks Department began charging a $10.00 advance reservation fee to get into Hamilton Pool Preserve. The fee can only be paid online and only with a credit card. There is a mandatory $1.00 surcharge for the credit card, so the fee is actually $11.00. None of it is refundable under any circumstances. And once you make the reservation, you cannot change the date. I suppose that pools need rules, but who were the fools who came up with such an unfriendly and inflexible system? I did find one section of the website that states that you can change your reservation (but you still can’t get a refund) if rain causes the pool to be closed on your reservation date. If you are a tourist and don’t plan to come back anytime soon, I guess you just eat the $11.00 fee.

Is There Another Fee to Pay When You Get to the Pool?

Of course. This one is $15 per vehicle. And the reservation fee does not count towards the second fee. So, your total cost comes to $26.00. The double-pack of fees remains in effect through September 30th. County officials did articulate a reason for these policy changes. Hamilton Pool is just “getting too popular around the globe.” So, the reservation system protects the public from driving 30 miles from Austin, only to discover that there is a long line of cars waiting to get in. County Parks staff have been spending too many hours and costly resources handling the traffic in recent years. But their solution leaves a lot of questions, not the least of which is this one:

Does Your Family “Belong” at Hamilton Pool? – Apparently Not, If You Are Low-Income

In these modern days of $300 massages and $150 breakfasts at some downtown hotels during Formula One, $26 in fees to get into Hamilton Pool may not sound like a big deal. But let’s not forget that Travis County has a very high poverty rate, and a heck of a lot of families who struggle with low wages, high rent and other affordability issues. For a special occasion, some of those families may want to visit Hamilton Pool. Travis County does an admirable job on affordable housing initiatives and they continue to explore new options in that area. But somewhere, somehow, somebody simply dropped the ball on this Hamilton Pool fee fiasco.

droppedball

How Much Extra Parks Revenue Could Travis County Get From the New Fees This Year?

$127,175.00, according to the Austin Monitor.

A Simple Solution

The crux of the pool problem seems to be overcrowding and not enough room for parking. The Texas Governor’s Mansion uses a simple reservation process, and it’s free. As for Hamilton Pool, it seems like it would make sense to charge only one fee, and let visitors pay it online in advance. That’s what people do every day when they pay for concerts and zillions of other special events. Modern computer systems are capable of handling reservation date changes. A family with a medical emergency or any other reason should not have to swallow the fee and pay it again later. Since the upfront cost would be higher under this arrangement, the County might want to rethink the refund policy. Perhaps they could charge a small processing fee to do a refund. Retailers and restaurants do it all the time with credit card payments, usually without an extra charge.

A More Cost-Effective Process Should Result In Lower Fees, Not Higher Ones

Travis County should be able to run a few cost analysis scenarios and come up with a payment method that is far simpler and more affordable than the one that took effect on May 15th. In fact, since the new system would be automated and fewer Parks staff would be needed to handle the smaller influx of cars, the visitor fee should be lower than last year’s, not higher. Hamilton pool should be financially accessible to all Travis County residents.

* Fine Print: “Downer” awards from this blog can be rescinded. No application, no website registration, and no fee is required. Once the public officials fix the problem that earned them the award, the blog will rescind it. The original posting will remain in the blog archives, along with an update noting when the award was rescinded.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

“The Unbirthday Song” – From “Alice In Wonderland”

Grocery Stores Go Missing From Austin Neighborhoods – What Gives?

By Bill Oakey – April 10, 2016

As the days, weeks and years tick by in “Progressive Austin,” there is one simple basic need that seems to elude the public officials, paid consultants and public engagement document and pamphlet designers. It’s something called a grocery store. Probably most of you reading this can get to a grocery store without too much time or trouble. Even I can do it, despite not being able to drive. And the walk got easier after City Public Works finally fixed a huge pothole on Possum Trot after five attempts last year. 

But it is no secret that some of Austin’s economically challenged neighborhoods have few grocery stores or none at all. Some of these communities are located in Northeast Austin, Southeast Austin and far South Austin. The Colony Park neighborhood is one example. In nearby Walter E. Long Park, the height of the weeds is surpassed only by the number of years of master planning and official lip service. Those efforts have failed to produce anything beyond a failed November 2000 bond election for a golf course and hotel. Then came the 2014 proposal to put in two privately owned luxury golf courses without a public vote, in apparent violation of the City Charter.

One thing that the Colony Park Neighborhood and probably most other neighborhood associations would agree on is the need for access to grocery stores. We have heard all the arguments about high construction costs and whether the disposable income in some deprived areas could support grocery stores. And after all, it is largely a decision that has to be made by the private owners of such stores. But here’s a suggestion. How about looking into how other cities, counties and various researchers have approached this problem? What potential solutions are out there, and could some of them be successfully applied here?

This Picture Is Worth at Least a Thousand Words, If Not More

Perhaps this picture and the link beneath it will point somebody down at City Hall or at Travis County in the proper direction. It’s a screenshot of one page of Google search results. Feast your eyes on what the search revealed. It should certainly give us some food for thought (pun fully intended). Click here to see the picture.

To do the Google search illustrated above, click here.

For Those In Colony Park Who Want to Spin the Public Engagement Wheel…

There is a brand new set of City-sponsored public process documents here.

Mayhem

Heartwarming movie about a 1960’s housewife and her affordability problems. The grocery store scene is one of the many highlights:

“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” – Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, 2005

Musical accompaniment for this blog posting:

  1. Grocery store love song, “Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg, 1980
  2. Silly grocery store song, “Supermarket Song,” – Jewel, 2011
  3. Even sillier grocery store song, “The Grocery Store Song,” – created in Moorhead State University (Minnesota) dorm room, 2008
  4. Mind-numbing, newfangled headbanger rock, “The Grocery Store Song,” – Boy Kicks Girl (???), 2008 (remastered version)

Watch The Video – March Regional Affordability Meeting

By Bill Oakey – March 31, 2016

The Austin Regional Affordability Committee met Monday March 28th. You can watch the video here. The Committee includes officials from the City of Austin, Travis County, Central Health, AISD and others. Among those are City Council Members Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen and Ellen Troxclair, Commissioner Brigid Shea, and former State Representative and current Central Health Board Member, Sherri Greenberg.

A highlight of this month’s meeting was an affordability presentation by the local nonprofit, Liveable City. This organization sponsored a collaborative gathering of citizens who divided into groups for a day-long affordability forum. The Regional Committee on Monday will also be discussing their ongoing efforts to develop an Affordability Strategic Plan. In the video, you will also see the introduction of my Homeowner Retention Initiative, along with a presentation on the critical issues facing renters from the Austin Tenants’ Council.

We have a tremendous opportunity to join together and work towards real, tangible solutions to Austin affordability. The issues are diverse and complex, but I believe that Austin abounds with the creative and innovative spirit that can truly make a difference. Hopefully, the topical elements and the results of community input obtained at the Liveable City forum will help the Committee build their Strategic Plan.

Click here for more information on the Austin Regional Affordability Committee.

The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back – Are You Ready For This?

By Bill Oakey – March 21, 2016

In a February blog posting, I discussed the need for the City to compile a list of all their expensive project plans, publish them for public input and discussion, and then set some realistic and affordable priorities on them. What I did not happen to mention is that obviously Travis County needs to do the same thing. In fact, the City and the County need to work together and then bring the community into this discussion.

Just try to imagine Amy’s Ice Cream, Whole Foods, Dell Computer or any other business of any size trying to operate without knowing the cost of all of their plans. Publicly held companies’ shareholders would never stand for it. If anyone reading this blog can find a single City or County office holder or staff member who can identify all of their master plans and project plans and tell us the total cost, I would be very surprised.

Are You Ready for This?

There is a Britney Spears slot machine in Las Vegas where she struts across the screen offering a bonus prize and asks, “Are you ready for this?” Well, ready or not, here comes something that is not nearly as much fun. In fact, I’d say this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

$620 million for a new Travis County Expo Center!

$620 million for a new Travis County Expo Center!

Yes, you read that right – a price tag that is over twice as high as the failed bond proposition for a new civil and family courthouse! You can see the high cost estimate that totals up to $620 million in this PDF from Page 33 of the County’s draft report. There may be some lower estimates out there in Consultant-ville, but why not factor in the highest estimate and assume that the routine cost overruns will hit that amount in the long run?

Are You Ready for Some More?

Oh, and just when you thought that the plan for two commercial golf courses at Walter E. Long Park had been put to rest, guess what. They’…rrre…back!! The same developer who brought up the original proposal has launched an expanded version that includes a host of other grand ideas. And the Austin Parks Department is about to start…here we go again…a brand new master plan for the park. So, the awesomely expensive new Expo Center would only be one piece of a much bigger package. The neighborhoods near the park have waited for over 30 years for some well-deserved improvements. But a grand scheme for luxury development would only bring on more California-style gentrification. (Quick note on the golf courses – Keep in mind that the Austin City Charter clearly states that no City parkland can be leased or “otherwise alienated” without voter approval).

Last year I addressed the big picture planning cost issue in another blog posting that conjured up images of the multiplying brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Today I am still haunted by those images of a hapless office apprentice carrying two buckets full of planning reports. As the music gradually rises to a crescendo, the brooms take over his duties and they begin to multiply. A dozen buckets full of plans morphs into hundreds. Our only hope is to wake up the City Council and the Commissioners Court before it’s too late.

Brooms

Click here for a stereo video of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

Vote For Chantal Eldridge – A Rare Opportunity!

By Bill Oakey – February 24, 2016

If you haven’t voted yet in the Democratic primary election, be sure to keep one name in mind – Chantal Eldridge for the 450th District Court. This is one of those “under the radar” races, but it’s very important that we take this opportunity to support Chantal.

Chantal Eldridge

Chantal Eldridge

With just a few days to go before Tuesday’s election, we need to let our family, friends and neighbors know why Chantal is the best choice for the 450th District Court. She brings over 25 years of experience as a criminal defense attorney and other legal positions in California, Tennessee and here in Travis County.

Why Am I Supporting Chantal?

One of her strongest platform issues pertains to mental health. Of course her experience is broad and covers a lot of areas. But on the mental health front, Chantal explained that the County jail functions as our biggest mental health provider. She would like for that to change. A much more efficient, affordable and compassionate approach would be to implement a medication compliance program. Chantal says that Travis County should follow the successful examples in Seattle and Miami. As she explained it, “We need a voluntary program where people with mental health conditions could store their medication at a local facility. The staff at those facilities, and even group homes,  could monitor the patients’ compliance with administering their medications.”

For my previous interview with Chantal and why you should support her, see my previous blog endorsement here.

Where to Go to Learn More About Chantal

Watch her YouTube video here.

Visit her campaign website for more information and to make a donation.

This is a unique opportunity to elect a strong reform candidate to the 450th District Court.

Ignore the False, Misleading and Disappointing Negative Attacks!

In a most unfortunate development and as an act of desperation, Chantal’s opponent in the primary has sent out very negative campaign mailers in the last few days. We deserve better. As you head to the polls to cast your ballot, turn your back on these baseless attacks and stand tall with Chantal’s positive message!

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.