Courting Change

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

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"[You could] get a building that is functional for what we do, but also fits in with the neighborhood and adds to the Downtown, which is supposedly what everybody is desiring," he continued. On that note, Dietz says he's urged Austin's Downtown interest groups – which he thinks are skeptical of the county's ability to pull the thing off – to get involved in the process. "It's just like any big project in Austin: The more people you've got supporting it behind it, as opposed to being armchair skeptics .... [People] are skeptical, but we keep trying to make the case," he concluded. "If you don't want the same old county building, then get behind some type of thing like a public-private partnership."

As part of their plans, the commissioners agreed to move the civil and family sections of the county's courts to a separate building. They're currently pondering whether or not to employ a public-private partnership to build what might just be the county's flagship building. Here, a P3 would bring in an eager-to-open, profit-driven partner as an alternative to both the CJC model – where too many heads delayed the project – and the prospect of an unready in-house county Facilities Department. If the shared, mixed-use retail or other commercial uses are successfully included, it could also have the benefit of putting as much as 1 million square feet of space back on the county tax rolls.

But beyond all that, there is the daunting cost. Ernst & Young estimates the cost of the facility will be between roughly $260 million and $400 million. Local real estate expert Charles Heimsath of Capitol Market Research doesn't believe that the county could convince its voters to pick up that tab. "I don't see the voters supporting the construction of a courthouse that isn't really needed for another 10 years," he says. Court members have yet to decide how they will finance the project, and whether bonds will be used to pay for whatever portion of it the county is ultimately responsible for.

That fact, of course, plays with another unresolved question: While there can be no doubt that the county needs a new courthouse, whether it needs this new courthouse – or at least a version of the maxed-out development unveiled to the court in 2011, is still a matter of debate.

Though one could argue that such a huge facility would provide the county with plenty of expansion room as it continues to grow, and that the more (private development) money that would go back on county tax rolls in the meantime the better, there are undeniable downsides to a massive, privately aided facility. On top of the fact that private involvement would require the county to use taxable bonds to finance any portion of the project – which could make the interest 1½ to 2 percentage points higher than if it were paying to finance the project on its own – these concerns play directly into the traumas of the recent past.

Margaret Gómez
Margaret Gómez (Photo by John Anderson)

From the get-go, the county is dealing with a first-of-its kind project. No on-staff county officials have had any real experience with this sort of development, on this scale. As court members began debating a P3-funded facility, Huber and Gómez cautioned against proceeding without enough information. They urged the court to adopt a slow process, and argued against a parallel-track proposal that had county officials both soliciting information about a potential P3 project and looking for a consultant to help them evaluate that information. "I'd just like to say, we will be getting responses from the people who want to do business with us," Huber said during the court's proceedings. "They will be telling us what we want to hear."

She and Gómez both invoked the specter of the CJC. "I think what may have happened 10 years ago is that there was some planning – but I don't know how much," Gómez said. "And then it got put on the ballot because there's always that rush of needing to get it done, and when that occurs, you leave a lot of things uncovered."

But the majority of the court disagreed, and on a 3-2 vote, pushed forward with the parallel-track process. On April 17, consultants with Ernst & Young presented commissioners with their suggestions about how to move forward. They argued that a P3 approach would be feasible, as would something more traditional. But, whatever the court's pleasure, Ernst & Young urged it to move quickly. "There's momentum for this project. ... Don't waste that," said E&Y principal Mark Gibson. Biscoe promptly scheduled a vote that might have included a decision about funding for the courthouse for the next week, April 24. Push didn't quite come to shove, however – the commissioners were not ready to move. Instead, when it came time for a thumbs-up-or-down, they unanimously punted the question of whether "to P3 or not to P3" back to a committee that will include judges, attorneys, and interested parties from the Downtown region. "I'm actually in favor of this," Karen Huber told her colleagues. "This is what I thought we should have started out with a year and a half ago."

The Best-Laid Plans

By the time the project is completed, the long-serving Judge Biscoe will have left county service, having announced he won't seek reelection in 2014. Gómez, too, is a longtime county vet, and heart problems kept her off the dais for an extended portion of 2010. She still won reelection handily that year, but just how long she'll stay remains an open question. And Huber is facing a tough re-election campaign this fall.

All of which is to say, by 2017 – the initially projected date for the opening of the new courthouse – things will likely have changed dramatically in terms of county leadership. The county will have changed, too. If population growth continues apace, there will be more than 1.5 million people living within Travis County boundaries. More people of course means more judges, more criminals, more lawsuits, more divorces, more adoptions. There's at least one truth about government: Business will expand as jurisdictions continue to grow.

But institutional change comes much more slowly. It took Travis County roughly two decades to outgrow the original plans of the Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse. It will have taken at least eight for it to move out of the facility. Facilities Management grew into itself over a decade; by that point, argues Huber, it was already outdated. Given all of this, the new courthouse gives the county the rare opportunity to move relatively quickly in two new directions: one from the bursting confines of its current judiciary facility, and one out from the shadow of the CJC.

For the record, Huber thinks that a county administrator – someone who would play a role similar to Austin City Manager Marc Ott – should be called in to handle Travis' day-to-day administrative needs. That move could leave the court to tend to broader policy decisions and free of the entanglements offered by such politically loaded departmental infighting as is exemplified by the facilities situation. Eckhardt agrees to some extent. "I do think we need a county administrator but it doesn't have to be a single person," she says via email. She points to the county's Operational Planning Team, a somewhat ad hoc group of top county managers that meets to discuss administrative issues.

Whatever the county's administrative situation, it looks like a courthouse will be built. And whether one believes the project will be successful in spite of or because of its internal setup – or none of the above – there appears to be considerable doubt that the effort could be handled by existing county staff.

Still, Deitz says he's optimistic. "I have no reason to be," he says with a chuckle. "The need is unquestionable. I just think the case needs to be made better, and we need to fully vet – and not just give up because this is really hard."

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