Courting Change

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

One scenario from two perspectives:
County commissioners have been presented with several potential scenarios for a courthouse campus.
Scenario C, shown here, would include a 72-story skyscraper and could add as much as a million square feet of retail and other commercial space to the county tax rolls. Planners emphasize that this is one of a handful of conceptual drawings, not an actual proposal.
One scenario from two perspectives: County commissioners have been presented with several potential scenarios for a courthouse campus. Scenario C, shown here, would include a 72-story skyscraper and could add as much as a million square feet of retail and other commercial space to the county tax rolls. Planners emphasize that this is one of a handful of conceptual drawings, not an actual proposal.

The lot at Third and Guadalupe sits in the middle of an area checkered with skyscrapers. The site is not subject to Capitol View Corridor height restrictions, and yet the extent of current development on the spot is a parking lot.

That's not for any lack of trying. The Austin Museum of Art spent three decades in various, and finally, vain attempts to turn the spread into its Downtown home. Travis County bought the block in late 2010, returning the land to county control; in 1855, it was the site of the original Travis County Courthouse. Some­time in the near future, county officials hope to bring their silver shovels there to kick off work on what might become the largest building west of the Mississippi Riv­er, should construction eventually extend to all of the nearly 2 million square feet that could be accommodated at the site.

Travis County's longstanding, desperate need for a new courthouse (see "The Sky's the Limit," Dec. 24, 2010) spurred the purchase, and in theory, the deal represents a happy solution for the county's most pressing facilities problem. But, with a twist of internal politics, the complications that would accompany any project on this scale have been multiplied for the county. Consid­er­ing the county's recent history of tripping over large-scale projects and its habitual lack of adequate planning, the circumstances that face county officials are daunting. But, should it succeed despite these odds – and the real difficulties have yet to begin – Travis might just drag itself to the forefront of innovative development.

Blackwell-Thurman CJC Blues

The county's most notorious major facilities project, the Blackwell-Thurman Crim­in­al Justice Center, left major managerial scars that have long dogged Travis County officials. Poor project management, which stemmed from a lack of organization, led to delays and cost overruns. Bonds were issued in 1993, and construction eventually began in 1997, but the CJC continued to expand in scope well past its initial stages, a situation that was compounded by the fact that no one was ready – at least for a while – to step in and play wrangler.

Four years later, the county found itself with a building which no one seemed to like, cost $23 million more than anticipated, and ended in litigation. Of the current court members, only County Judge Sam Biscoe (then Precinct 1 Commissioner) had a seat on that body when Travis voters approved a set of bonds to build the facility. He maintains that the project hasn't made the county hesitant to pull the trigger on other major facilities efforts. Most other members of the current court – including Precinct 4 Com­mis­sioner Margaret Gómez, who was first elected in 1994 and experienced much of the CJC debacle firsthand – admit that the CJC experience colors their decisions. "I know I'm gun-shy because of that experience we went through with that CJC," Gómez said.

The county has purchased this parking lot site, between Third and Fourth streets along Guada­lupe, to build a new civil and family courthouse.
The county has purchased this parking lot site, between Third and Fourth streets along Guada­lupe, to build a new civil and family courthouse. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Former Precinct 2 Com­mis­sion­er Karen Sonleitner took office at the same time as Góm­ez. "I wouldn't use the word 'gun-shy,'" she says in reference to the effect of the CJC, "but I would use the words 'extremely thoughtful.'" Sonleitner, however, suggests that the imprint may be more positive than negative. "It kind of gives you a mental checklist of every question you'd ever have to ask."

Whatever the case, the fact that commissioners continue to think about the CJC project – and raise it in the context of the county's next major construction effort – seems to illustrate its lingering effect on county policy.

Without a Plan ...

Precinct 3 Commissioner Karen Huber says that the lack of any real comprehensive facilities plan before 2002 has significantly affected the county. "A lack of vision and coordinated direction always hurts an organization – particularly one the size of the county. Without one, there is no common vision and often the right hand doesn't even know what the left hand is doing," she said. "With the exponential growth that Travis County has experienced, the county now finds itself way behind the eight ball in addressing facility needs. It will cost the county much more, now, to catch up with the facilities needs than it would have if they had been addressed through the years in a planned and methodical way."

Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt agrees. "In most of the 254 counties in Texas, master planning isn't really needed," she said. "But in major metropolitan counties, it has become an absolute necessity. Travis County has been perhaps a little slow in coming to that realization." Biscoe isn't so sure. "I cannot recall an incident that would have been averted had a master plan been in place. Master plans cost a lot to prepare and adopt, and there is no guarantee that they will be used," he said. "They may be worth the investment. However, to date, that has not been demonstrated in Travis County."

Still, in 2009, the county hired outside facilities management firm Broaddus & Associates, at a cost of more than $1.5 million, to come up with what was subsequently called "Travis County Central Campus 2010-2035: Strategic Needs Analysis & Facilities Master Plan." In a February 2010 presentation to the court, Broaddus suggested that the county would need roughly 1.1 million net occupiable square feet by 2035, or just about double what was available as of 2010. Based on those numbers, Huber's "behind the eight ball" seems accurate.

The space assumptions were part of a larger effort, one that would eventually find the court approving a Downtown county campus that would both expand the number of buildings it occupied, and relocate a host of offices around the Guadalupe corridor. In December 2010, the court finalized acquisition of the lot at Third and Guada­lupe. Then, in a separate presentation in Octo­ber 2011, the court heard from Broad­dus about the future potential of the lot they'd bought almost a year before. Com­mis­sioners saw four development scenarios, the tallest of which would produce a 72-story skyscraper. None of the scenarios were yet potential designs; Broaddus had simply brought them to the court to illustrate the potential size of the project.

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.

"[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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