As Travis County leaders weigh whether to build a new downtown court administration building for as much as $60 million, questions have emerged about how to pay for it, and whether it’s needed at all.
The debate comes after county commissioners in recent years have issued more than $100 million in bonds without voter approval, and as the commissioners are considering building a costly downtown civil courthouse.
The county’s debt from non-voter-approved bonds has more than tripled from $68.8 million in 2005 to $226 million this month.
In the few public discussions — many have occurred behind closed doors — of the proposed seven-story, 130,000 square-foot office building at the corner of San Antonio and West 11th streets, commissioners have not questioned its need. It would mostly house the district attorney’s offices and would be the county’s first downtown construction project in more than a decade.
“If we’re going to build a $40 million to $60 million building over there, are you going to do that with non-voter-approved dollars? That’s pretty bold,” said Gerald Daugherty, the lone Republican commissioner. He also said he is not convinced the county needs the building. Daugherty offered few specific objections, saying he hasn’t been briefed on previous discussions about the building since taking office in January.
But the need is more obvious to Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, saying that staffers have been double and triple-assigned to cubicles in other criminal justice buildings and that the county is planning to open a pair of new criminal courts in existing office space. The district attorneys’ offices are also spread over three buildings downtown.
“We don’t have a choice in providing office space for our district attorney,” Eckhardt said. “This is one of our basic services.”
Commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on one of two plans to build the office building.
Non-voter approved bonds
Travis County budget officials have recommended paying for the court administration building mostly with non-voter-approved bonds. Officials have defended the recent spending using bonds without voter approval.
“There has been an over-reliance on (non-voter approved bonds) and a lot them (issued) recently, but that is not because of a lack of desire of asking voters for approval,” Eckhardt said. She said commissioners have turned to such bonds because they must act quickly in making real estate purchases, rather than waiting for an election.
Recent spending using non-voter approved debt includes:
- $75.6 million in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to buy and pay for part of the renovations of the 700 Lavaca Street office building and parking garage (roughly $20 million more in renovations will be paid with other funds). The 15-story building houses commissioner court offices, financial departments, information technology and other general government-related offices.
- $22.5 million in 2011 to buy a vacant block south of Republic Square Park, the site of a planned new civil courthouse.
- $16.7 million in 2011 and 2012 for a new $26 million financial system.
Record-low interest rates nationwide and Travis County’s top bond rating have helped ease taxpayer burden for the borrowing, officials say.
To pay off county debt, property owners paid 7.84 cents per $100 of taxable value on this year’s tax bill. For the owner of the average value home ($216,542), that was about $170. That rate has dropped since 2004, when it was 9.92 cents, or $190 for the owner of the average value home ($191,240). The county’s total debt payments this year are $77.6 million, $19.1 million more than in 2004.
Despite Travis County’s growing use of non-voter approved bonds, most large Texas counties outpace Travis County when it comes to issuing such bonds. Bexar County, for example, increased its non-voter approved debt from $39.4 million in 2003 to $713 million in 2011, an 18-fold increase.
Downtown building boom
Behind much of the county’s recent focus on downtown real estate is a master plan that envisions expanded office space downtown as services grow to keep pace with the county’s rapid population growth.
That plan anticipates $1 billion in downtown construction for county offices in the next quarter-century. The new courthouse, currently planned as a 17-story, 500,000 square-foot building built on the block south of Republic Square, is estimated to cost $340 million. Earlier this year, commissioners decided to hold a bond election to finance the courthouse, but didn’t decide when. The debt for those bonds would cost the average homeowner up to $71 a year, according to county estimates.
Critics have assailed county leaders for recent spending. The $7.25 million the county spent for the proposed court administration building was double what an independent appraiser said it was worth; the $21.75 million for the courthouse lot is slightly above a $21.25 million independent appraisal and much higher than the $13.87 million Travis Central Appraisal District valuation at the time of purchase; the $65 million 700 Lavaca building was independently appraised at $63 million but valued at $47.1 million by the appraisal district.
But the county has been slow to address major downtown infrastructure projects in the past decade. Civil court judges have lobbied for a new courthouse for more than eight years, citing cramped conditions in the 81-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse.
The costly construction and ensuing litigation of the downtown Criminal Justice Center — which opened in 2000, three years late and at a cost of $45 million, more than twice the original estimate — might be to blame for the county’s decade-long pause in downtown office space expansion, Eckhardt said.
The criminal justice center’s construction has since been cited as a prime example of what can go wrong in a public project. Lack of oversight and construction problems, coupled with increases in the building’s size, led to the delayed completion and prompted lawsuits between the county and the project manager. Both parties dropped their suits in 2003, citing exhaustion from endless litigation.
Per capita debt in Texas urban counties in 2012 fiscal year
El Paso $623
*Figure for 2011, the most recent available
Non-voter-approved debt as a share of total debt in urban counties in the 2012 fiscal year
Bexar: $713 million of $1.07 billion*; 67 percent
El Paso: $177 million of $235 million; 75 percent
Dallas: $58 million of $122 million; 48 percent
Travis: $236 million of $673 million; 35 percent
Harris: $0 out of $2.76 billion; 0 percent
Tarrant: $0 out of $318 million; 0 percent
*Figure for 2011, the most recent available