More than eight years after their first public discussions about building a new civil courthouse, Travis County commissioners have spent about $24 million on the effort, mostly to buy expensive downtown land.But they have yet to decide how — and more importantly, whether — to build a new courthouse.
County commissioners appear to be stymied in part by how to finance construction for what might be the county’s costliest project ever, a proposed 17-story, 500,000-square-foot tower south of Republic Square Park. Judges and outside consultants have urged the commissioners to build it with a private partner, which would somewhat limit the county’s financial responsibility.
Earlier this month, commissioners voted to seek proposals for a consultant to help manage the financing and construction of the new courthouse. The consultant will advise commissioners on whether to pursue a private partnership.
The county anticipates issuing $205 million in bonds with a partnership, or about $340 million in bonds without one.
A majority of the commissioners — Sarah Eckhardt, Gerald Daugherty and Margaret Gómez — have told the American-Statesman that voters should be asked to approve bonds. The commissioners court could also issue non-voter-approved bonds. County staff said this month a bond election could happen as soon as November, though some commissioners say that timeline could be too optimistic.
In recent decades, Travis County voters have approved bond packages of tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars, but those have mostly been dedicated to transportation, parks or other infrastructure projects, not a downtown building that the vast majority of residents wouldn’t regularly use. Commissioners might face a backlash if they issue non-voter-approved bonds, but there’s also a risk that voters might not approve the borrowing.
In interviews this month , commissioners defended their pace of decision-making over the courthouse, saying it is a complicated and expensive project that should be done methodically.
Meanwhile, the need for a courthouse might be slightly less urgent than it was when judges first asked commissioners to pursue a new, larger building. Records show that the courts have about 25 percent fewer cases pending now than eight years ago, even as slightly more cases are being filed now than when the need was first brought up.
State District Judge John Dietz, the lead advocate among judges for the new courthouse, says the need for a new building is clear. He has been sounding many of the same alarms over the 81-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse since 2004: The building’s layout doesn’t give enough space for families waiting in the hallways for divorce and other family law cases; courtrooms are too small with no space to add more; and the building has leaky ceilings and isn’t designed for modern technology.
“The price of this thing is, really, the thing that puts it in harm’s way,” Daugherty said. “Anytime you’re asking people to sign off on really big ticket items, then, No. 1, you have to make sure the public really understands what it is that you’re saying you really need, and, No. 2, you need to convince them this is something that we need to do now.”
Commissioners and other officials often cite the county’s most recent major downtown construction project as a case of what can go wrong: the Criminal Justice Center, which at $45 million cost more than twice the original estimate and opened three years late in 2000.
Building the courthouse as a public-private partnership would cost the county less up front, and it would cede control of the building to a company that would lease space the county doesn’t need to private entities. Over time, the county would take over that extra space as needed. Eventually, the building would be returned to county control as offices are fully occupied by the courts.
A county report estimates it would cost about $343 million if built with a private partner and $339 million if not. For both scenarios, the tax burden in 2020 for the owner of an average-value home would be $61 to $71 annually, according to county documents.
“While I may have gotten a lot of concrete evidence about why we need to do this courthouse and how much it’s going to cost, we really need to get this (consultant) on board to help us with the outreach to the community to get our community to a comfort level where they’ll spend $300 million,” Eckhardt said, referring to the consultant commissioners hope to hire soon.
Two years after a $1.7 million master planning study in 2010 that showed a need for a new courthouse, Ernst & Young LLP, issued a report that weighed the merits of building with a public-private partnership or a more traditional approach in which the county has full financial responsibility. The county paid Ernst & Young $425,000 to perform the analysis and also hired law firm Hawkins, Delafield & Wood for $65,000 for associated legal services.
A committee of a dozen volunteers with varied expertise, along with three state district judges, reviewed that report and in August recommended building a courthouse as a public-private partnership and starting the project soon.
Eckhardt said she favors a public-private partnership because it lowers the amount of debt voters would be asked to approve, making it more politically convenient. Gómez said she opposes the partnership because of concerns with giving control of the courthouse to an outside company. Daugherty and Judge Sam Biscoe wouldn’t say which method of building they prefer. Commissioner Ron Davis didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
The current courthouse is about 125,000 square feet, which is less than half the amount of space the county says it needs.
The new courthouse would be built to house 31 courtrooms — the Sweatt building has 18 — as well as rooms for hearings and mediation and other offices connected to the civil courts system.
Key dates in considering a new courthouse
Feb. 18, 2003: Judge John Dietz, among other officials, asks for help finding more space.
Sept. 21, 2004: Commissioners unanimously approve $150,000 for planning for a new civil courthouse.
April 3, 2007: Report details needs; commissioners vote to use it to “educate the public.”
April 10, 2007: Commissioners appoint advisory committee to oversee plan for a new courthouse.
Feb. 2, 2010: Consultant Broaddus and Associates presents study that shows need for a new courthouse downtown, part of a $1.7 million master planning study.
Dec. 14, 2010: Commissioners approve buying block bounded by Third, Fourth, San Antonio and Guadalupe streets for $21.8 million.
May 31, 2011: County seeks consultants for public-private partnership to build a new courthouse.
Jan. 3, 2012: Commissioners approve a $425,000 contract with Ernst & Young LLP to analyze building a new courthouse, plus a $65,000 contract for associated legal services.
April 24, 2012: Ernst & Young gives its final analysis.
Aug. 7, 2012: Panel appointed to review the Ernst and Young says build with private partner as quickly as possible.