Courting Change

Travis County needs a new civil and family courthouse – and a new way of doing business

(Page 2 of 3)

What About Facilities?

Karen Huber
Karen Huber (Photo by John Anderson)

A year before the county began its comprehensive look at its facilities, a simmering dispute over both managerial policy and personal disagreements between former head of Administrative Operations Alicia Perez and then-Human Resources Director Linda Moore Smith boiled over into a full-blown war, ending in lawsuits and county settlements. The dispute eventually forced out both officials and left an outsized question mark hanging over the upper levels of county organization.

It also left an open question about the Facilities Management Department. Until then, the various functions of the growing Travis facilities department resided under Perez's direction – or, if you believed the rumors, lack of direction. Without Perez, it floated in somewhat autonomous territory, reporting to different county executive managers, but also directly engaging with commissioners – who in addition to being elected officials, are also the CEOs of their precincts. Some commissioners were OK with the interactions; some were not. The issue – and the divided court that it brings – continues to fester, and periodically surfaces at court, with Gómez and Precinct 1 Commissioner Ron Davis defending faci­lities head Roger El Khoury, while Huber and sometimes Eckhardt try to push their colleagues into a change. Though no one would comment on the record about it, rumors have circulated that El Khoury was at one point ticketed for dismissal.

As currently assembled, the Facilities Department grew out of the CJC fiasco. Huber argues that, in its current iteration, the department is "outdated in its organization and practices." But she and Eckhardt have been unable to yet convince their colleagues to take substantial corrective action. For Gómez, that department isn't the problem. "Facilities Management was never set up to handle a [large-scale construction] project," she said. Though Commissioner Davis declined to comment for this story, he and Gómez tend to vote along the same lines on issues surrounding the Facilities Department. That leaves Biscoe as the proverbial decider. And so far, he's declined to vote for a new, major administrative reorganization.

At the March 20 court meeting, Huber issued a scathing public rebuke of the Facilities Department in the face of a proposal made by Biscoe and Gómez that would – for the third time in a year – shuffle that department and its problematic leadership under the supervision of a different county executive. This time, the move would place facilities under the watch of County Executive for Planning and Budget Leslie Browder, a seasoned manager who was, until March, the City of Austin's chief financial officer. And, as a brand-new member of county government, she might provide an ... unburdened perspective on the situation. Still, the political baggage carried by the Facilities Department and El Khoury is enough to glaze even a fresh set of eyes.

Huber called the proposal "unconscionable." "I do not think it's fair – as politically charged internally as this department is – to put this under a brand-new, on-the-job-less-than-a-month county executive," she said. She also implied that El Khoury had manipulated the court into letting him select his manager. "We cannot let a department under a county executive come to us and say, 'We don't like it here; we want to be somewhere else.'" El Khoury declined to comment.

Neverthless, only Huber voted against the change. El Khoury and his department are now Browder's problem.

Sarah Eckhardt
Sarah Eckhardt (Photo by John Anderson)

The action came after Huber and Eck­hardt had raised a series of questions over Facilities' handling of the renovations of a building at 700 Lavaca that county officials had bought as part of their Down­town campus master plan, to house the Com­missioners Court and several management offices. Instead of using its in-house operation, the county had again turned to an outside construction management firm – HS&A, which had been called in to clean up the CJC mess – to handle part of the project. El Khoury had been visibly upset when the court refused to grant his department sole management over the renovations.

As HS&A proceeded with few issues, Facilities stumbled. News came that the 15th-floor office for the Precinct 4 commissioner – the only such office not on the second floor, and therefore the only office not managed by HS&A – had cost $40 more per square foot than the other commissioners' offices. Huber also worried that the approach Facilities had taken to bidding out a window glazing project had also cost the county extra funds. The Facilities Depart­ment "chose to bid out [the glazing project], not including the first three floors," she said. "Ultimately that whole project will cost us more because of the need to have to go back in and add those first three floors."

For Huber, the glazing is just the latest in a series of shortfalls by the department that reflect its apparent inability to handle a major project; Gómez believes that the department was never designed to do so. In the distance between the two points, one can see either the predicament (Gómez) or failure (Huber) of the county's Facilities Department. The situation also displays the political intractability associated with El Khoury and his team. It all shows that Facil­ities is not prepared to assist in any large-scale way with any major county project.

Such an effort, of course, would include the enormous courthouse project.

How Many P's?

Public-private construction partnerships ("P3s" in wonk-speak) are, ultimately, a way for public entities to rely on private investment and management to aid in the construction of major projects, while retaining varying levels of control and ownership. In Texas, P3s have been used successfully to construct roads – and have also resulted in unpopular tollway projects. Despite the potential for public controversy and other drawbacks, some in county government consider the construction financing method to be cutting-edge.

Judge John K. Deitz, who has been a prime motivator for the new courthouse, has been pushing for a P3 to construct it. "What just comes to mind when you start saying 'public-private partnership'? 'Well, we're not sure, because somebody's going to get rich that shouldn't get rich,'" he suggests. "That's a con – but ... you get somebody who knows what they're doing."

Sam Biscoe
Sam Biscoe (Photo by John Anderson)

As the county began to explore its construction options, a party of officials, including Dietz, traveled to a series of P3-funded courthouses. He singled out one in Brooklyn. "There we are in this magnificent –" he broke off to explain what he meant. "I mean, magnificent in that it looked Stalinist, but Brooklyn is two million some-odd people – twice the size of where we are now – and their courthouse had been open for five years, and you could not see wear," he continued. "It had a child-care center that could take care of 60 kids ... and they had a full family-service center so that if you needed domestic violence counseling, there was somebody there to enroll you; if you needed drug treatment, there were people that could sign you up; if you needed drug testing, they could take you to a lab right there.

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