Travis County puts civil courthouse bond election on ballot

After 15 years of plans, proposals and procrastination, Travis County’s vision for a new 14-story civil courthouse in downtown Austin will go before the voters in November.

The county commissioners on Tuesday voted 5-0 to place a $287 million bond election on the November ballot for the courthouse, which would be built on the block south of Republic Square at Fourth and Guadalupe streets. It would free up space at the aging Heman Sweatt Travis County Courthouse at 10th and Guadalupe, which county officials say is dilapidated and overcrowded.

If the bonds are approved and issued, they will cost property owners $15.75 per year for every $100,000 in appraised value, said Belinda Powell, the county’s strategic planning manager. After tax exemptions, an owner of the average $355,312 home would pay an additional $41.34 per year.

The county in 2010 purchased the highly desirable block where the courthouse is planned from the Austin Museum of Art for $22 million. Currently a parking lot, it is one of the last undeveloped blocks in downtown Austin not subject to height restrictions from the Capitol View Corridor program. It also happens to be the location of the original Travis County courthouse built in 1855.

Proposals for how to build the new courthouse have included a $340 million tower at that location, a cheaper facility at the county’s Airport Boulevard complex and a public-private partnership to build a multiuse facility.

Now that county officials are on the same page about how to build the 520,000-square-foot courthouse, supporters of the project will need to persuade affordability-minded voters of the need for it.

A political action committee, funded primarily by the legal community and organized by leaders of the Austin Bar Association, is advocating for the bond election’s passage.

The Community for Civil and Family Courthouse PAC had about $80,000 on hand at the end of June, according to its campaign finance report. The group had raised $134,000 from February to June and spent $56,000, primarily on consultants.

In three checks, the group received $70,000 from the Austin Bar Foundation, a nonprofit that is separate from the bar association but aids its educational activities. DeLaine Ward, the bar association’s executive director, said the foundation money came from fundraisers held specifically for the courthouse project, not dues from lawyers or other sources.

There are many critics of the courthouse project, although none appear to have organized an opposition campaign. New Urbanists want to see the site become a livelier mixed-use development instead of a courthouse that could be closed about 16 hours a day. Others want the site turned over to the private sector so it can boost tax rolls.

Affordability advocate Bill Oakey has been pushing for the county to lower the price tag for the bonds, possibly by moving the project out of downtown. He said Tuesday that he is neutral on the outcome of the bond election but wants county and city leaders to come together and establish “broad approaches to affordability that achieve meaningful results.”

Since taking office in January, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has worked to cut the project’s cost by preparing underused county properties to be sold. Proceeds from those sales, she said, can help pay down the bonds even after they are issued, lowering the eventual cost to taxpayers.

Potential future savings, however, won’t be reflected in the ballot language. Voters on Nov. 3 will check a box indicating whether they are for or against “the issuance of $287,275,000 of bonds for the purpose of constructing, improving and equipping civil and family courts facilities and the levying of the tax in payment thereof.”

Eckhardt said the county needs the additional space.

“The reality is we need the capacity and we have a constitutional obligation to provide the capacity,” she said. “If we are not successful in (getting voter approval), we will have to retool and look for other ways to provide the capacity. From where I stand today, I don’t see other options that are as effective or as efficient.”

The county intends to turn the southern half of the block over to private development through a long-term ground lease. Under such an agreement, the new building would be taxable but the county would continue to own the land underneath it.

County officials last month met informally with developers interested in the project and plan to seek official proposals in late October.

The commissioners on Tuesday also voted to approve the creation of a three-block tax increment reinvestment zone around the courthouse location that will allow the county to use revenue from public parking at the site to help maintain Republic Square. The city, which owns the square, requests aid from property owners near city parks to help maintain them, Powell said.

The county will turn over a maximum of $100,000 in parking revenue each year for two decades through the tax district. The properties in the three-block area are all government-owned, so the tax zone won’t involve property taxes.

Approval of the courthouse project is the linchpin of a county plan to reshape and greatly expand its facilities as the area’s population — and demand for government services — continues to grow.

The commissioners and administrative offices moved into the 700 Lavaca building in 2012 after a $99 million purchase and renovation. The county is also constructing a $42 million building downtown for the district attorney’s office and a $35 million building for the medical examiner’s office in East Austin. When the civil courts move out, the Heman Sweatt building will get a makeover and be readied for additional county offices.

And, if all goes according to plan, voters again will be asked to approve construction bonds for a new central booking facility west of Wooldridge Park.

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