Point Austin: The Courthouse Aftermath

County considers its options after bond vote rejected

Point Austin

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I was disappointed at the negative outcome of last week's vote on the Travis County civil courthouse bond. The narrow defeat was hardly a mandate, but for the present no new courthouse is on the horizon, and years of work by county officials, staff, and citizen volunteers returns grimly to the drawing board. I believe the rejection was wrong on the facts and shortsighted on county priorities, but it does reflect an apparently growing local mood opposed to large public infrastructure investments – other than highway lanes, of course. Alas, the vote also smacks of diminishing faith in Austin's common public future, and an unreflective nostalgia for simpler times: The most persistent criticism of the courthouse plan was that it didn't include enough of that popular oxymoron, "free parking."

In that context, appearing on a state constitutional ballot carrying both a homestead exemption tax cut and more highway funding certainly didn't help the bond's chances, and the county's attempt to promote it primarily by many low-profile public meetings with little elected official involvement left most voters with insufficient information. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt noted with regret that she and the commissioners followed their legal instructions to remain "arm's length" from the campaign, and reportedly County Attorney David Escamilla even forbade too many images of the current building's leaking and crumbling interior, as impermissible "advocacy." That left the field to braying anti-tax City Council Member Don Zim­mer­man, to whom such legal and ethical niceties are beneath consideration.

Meanwhile, the mercenary motives of the Real Estate Council's last-minute opposition were confirmed at dawn following the vote, when the Austin Business Journal posted a story lusting over the proposed site: "Downtown Austin block – a developer's dream – may hit market soon." RECA President Ward Tisdale's cheerful offer to consult on the county's alternatives should be accompanied by a choral recitation of Lewis Carroll's "How Doth the Little Crocodile."

What's Next?

The Heman Sweatt Courthouse is overcrowded, dilapidated, dangerous, obsolete for modern judicial purposes, and – as even the opponents conceded – needs to be replaced and expanded somehow, somewhere. Judge Eckhardt made it immediately clear that the vote would not be the last word on a new courthouse, but it will take some time for commissioners to determine their next move. The available choices (and adequate alternative sites) are limited. It turns out county sources were mistaken about a required three-year interim before another bond vote (a mistake I naively repeated) – but Eckhardt says the path forward remains unclear.

She acknowledged that Travis County's campaign was in the end insufficient. "We made a convincing case of the need," she said, "but we didn't make a convincing case of the remedy, at that price tag and at that location." She added that, in general, the county isn't great at information outreach. "We don't do a good job of telling our story, and we don't have a public information office ... to publicize all the good work the county does." Especially since younger voters, and those new to the area, barely distinguish city and county responsibilities. Eckhardt said the county will "step through all the alternative proposals in a very public way," and in the meantime try to identify interim solutions.

"We need to find a plan to increase capacity," she said, and that will likely require a temporary facility, Downtown or elsewhere, possibly moving business litigation, for example, to other county buildings. "But a temporary fix is not a permanent fix for our capacity needs," the judge said, let alone any planning for continuing population growth. "We're going to keep working on it and we're going to find a solution," she concluded, "because we have to."

Engraved Invitations

That still leaves the much larger and intractable problem of voter engagement, where fewer than 6% of registered voters (in an 11%-turnout election) can determine major public policies for the entire region. While the vote was still out, County Tax Assessor (and Voter Registrar) Bruce Elfant noted how increasingly difficult it is to engage voters on local issues – especially young voters, although they will be living with the results for the next several decades. "Presidential elections [where local turnout might reach 65%] are important," Elfant said. "But local elections have so much more impact on our daily lives." Elfant said he and County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir plan to collaborate over the next year on new turnout efforts, hoping to reach 70%.

The precinct results map showed the central city voting for the bond, but in insufficient numbers to overcome the ring of suburban opposition, where tax cuts persistently take priority over public investment. Elfant said he often hears the refrain that some people don't vote because "special interests" control the outcome. "Special interests really like elections with 11% turnout," he said. "Those are a lot easier to control than 70%, or even 50%." If you couldn't be bothered this time, you ceded your decision to the 6%.

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November 2015 Election, Travis County Courthouse, Sarah Eckhardt

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