Tag Archives: Travis County

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.

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.