Cost of Justice

New county courthouse to be on Nov. ballot


The courthouse complex would be built on this parking lot site, between Third and Fourth streets directly south of Republic Square. (Image courtesy of Travis County Courthouse)

On November 3, Texas voters will go to the polls to consider seven state constitutional amendments, including the ritual perennial tax cuts (expanding the homestead exemption for school property taxes, cutting taxes for the elderly and veterans, etc.) as well as the predictable rhetorical pandering: e.g., Proposition 6, confirming "the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife." We'll have more on the props later in the year. But for Travis County voters, a more substantive choice is likely to be the county bond vote, proposed by Commissioners Court in February: whether to authorize the construction of a new civil and family courthouse complex, to the tune of $291.6 million.

Anyone who enters the 84-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse (opened in 1931) – and more than 200,000 people, a steadily rising number, pass through its doors annually – sees immediately that the building is overcrowded, antiquated, and inadequate for contemporary uses, let alone the high-tech and high-security demands of a modern courthouse. Those who have business there, from judges trying to juggle too few courtrooms to jurors crowding the hallways, readily recognize that the building has outlived its usefulness. Although the courthouse has architectural distinction and has achieved historic landmark status (the eventual plan is to renovate it and convert it to house court-related services), it can no longer fulfill its judicial functions.

So the literal need for a new civil courthouse – the planning name is "Civil & Family Courts Complex" (CFCC) – is in itself unlikely to generate much public opposition. But the price tag is another matter – and the courthouse planners, drawn largely from the ranks of Commissioners Court, county judges, and the Austin Bar Association (along with their technical team) are attempting to anticipate those doubters by emphasizing the desperate need for the new complex, its functions for both civil and family legal matters, and what they describe as a cost-effective, efficient, "thoroughly scrubbed" proposal that will also include financial "offsets" to help defray the overall expense of construction.

On the promotional front, the planners are emphasizing the family courts side of the equation, not only because that's a substantial courthouse obligation (out of a total of some 50,000 annual cases, estimates Judge John Dietz, more than 15,000 concern family matters), but because family law cases – divorces, child custody, restraining orders – raise particular security issues that have overwhelmed the current courthouse. Children await resolution of their parents' cases in courthouse stairwells, victims of domestic abuse wait in hallways near their abusers, and so on. At a recent press conference hosted by the Women's Community Center of Central Texas, SafePlace Executive Director Julia Spann emphasized that the lack of courthouse "safe rooms" for abuse survivors means that they are often confronted by their abusers in parking lots, elevators, and hallways. Newer courthouses routinely include safe rooms for family members and activity rooms for children. In addition to the strictly judicial matters, other services – child protection, adoption, marriage licensing, passports – fight for available county space.

The emphasis on family matters rather than the sort of high-profile civil lawsuits (public school funding, redistricting) that generally catch more headlines is intended to persuade a broader demographic swath of voters. On the cost side, it's still early for questions to accumulate, but this project has been on the county drawing board for a decade, and early cost estimates ran from $300-$400 million – planners obviously worked to move the price tag to the lower end of that range. That said, also cited in that initial press conference (by Community Focus Committee Chair Martha Dickie) was a comparison to a recent courthouse project in Broward County, Fla. "When you make an apples-to-apples comparison," said Dickie, "this project will actually be cheaper than the Broward County one."

Why Broward County? Because critics have been citing that project as presumably more cost-effective than the Travis County plan. Specifically, "affordability" advocate Bill Oakey posted on his blog in September 2013 that his Google search reflected the Broward project at "half the cost per square foot" of the proposed Travis County courthouse. Oakey began lobbying commissioners, and was duly appointed to the project's Community Focus Committee, which adopted his resolution that the project achieve "a national model of cost effectiveness and efficiency." Early this year (April 2), Oakey resigned from the committee, saying it had "gone far astray" and insisting that the cost of the project "cannot be justified" – repeating his claim that the Broward County project would be roughly half the cost per square foot. Oakey acknowledged the acute need for a new courthouse, but insisted the current plans are overambitious – he was also miffed that the committee hadn't spent more time discussing his "cost effectiveness and efficiency" resolution.

If the planners had hoped to get Oakey inside the courthouse tent pissing out, that hope seems to have been dashed – his letter of resignation suggests that he will instead do what he can to defeat the November bond as too big a burden on local taxpayers. [Note: Oakey strenuously objects to this characterization of his resignation letter (see his posts below), and insists he has not yet taken a position on the project or the bond.] But the planners have responded that not only is the retired accountant's opposition wrongheaded, so are his numbers. Com­mis­sioners asked project consultant George Tapas of URS Corporation (recused from bidding on the project itself) to review and compare the Broward County project. Tapas concluded that Oakey's estimate of $277 per square foot was way off – he calculated that the full cost of the Broward project came to $448 per square foot, for a project slimmed down from an earlier failed bond and with no room for future growth. The current estimate for the Travis County courthouse complex is $447 per square foot, just below the regional construction average of $451.

Moreover, project supporters note that the plans allow for anticipated needs through 2035, and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt says several "offsets" – the leased office tower, income from parking, etc. – while not directly linked to the bond proposal, will in fact over time defray as much as 20% of the project costs.

With months to go before the arguments begin in earnest, there remains plenty of time to crunch the various numbers. Dickie reiterated that a "safe and secure" courthouse is "not a luxury item" but a "constitutionally mandated necessity"; she and other supporters noted that for the owners of a $325,000 home, the annual property tax hit would be $42, or "a $3.50 taco once a month." (Not sure where they're buying those gourmet tacos, but the original pitch was "one grande latte" a month – call it a sensible rewrite.) Genevieve Van Cleve, campaign manager for the Austin Bar Association PAC supporting the project, argues that "affordability" is not simply a taxpayer issue – rather, "it must include access to justice that we all as citizens deserve, regardless of income. Affordability has to include access to services .... That building [Heman Sweatt] is overwhelmed and unsafe. This is basic infrastructure spending by a very conservative Commissioners Court. It's simply something we must do."


Civil & Family Courts Complex: The Specs

• A 14-story, 520,000 square-foot building

• Space for 28 courtrooms (current courthouse, designed for three, now has 19)

• Lower-level space for county departments; secondary tower for current lease space, future expansion

• Underground parking garage (four levels, 513 spaces)

• Cost (proposed bond): $291.6 million


See more info on the Civil & Family Courts Complex at www.traviscountytx.gov/cfcc. Bill Oakey is at www.austinaffordability.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Travis County Courthouse, Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, Travis County Commissioners Court, November 2015 Election

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