Travis County voters to weigh new civil, family courts bond on ballots

The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse is located on Guadalupe Street in Austin.

The Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse is located on Guadalupe Street in Austin.

Travis County voters will decide this fall whether to authorize spending $287.3 million in bond funds on a new civil and family courts complex, or CFCC, in downtown Austin.

The Travis County Commissioners Court called for an order in August to place the bond election on the Nov. 3 ballot. If voters approve it, each county homeowner would see an estimated $13.50 property tax increase annually per $100,000 of taxable valuation, said Belinda Powell, strategic planning manager for the Travis County Planning and Budget Office.

Travis County voters to weigh new civil, family courts bond What is a civil and family courts complex?
Civil and family court cases include adoptions, custody hearings, cases related to domestic violence, marriages and divorce proceedings. The proposed complex would house courtrooms, waiting areas, clerks’ offices and other facilities related civil and family law uses.[/caption]

The court, comprising four commissioners and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, voted unanimously to approve the order.

“I know folks are going to have sticker shock on that cost, but by building it now and building it right with additional capacity for the future it’s going to [cost less] overall,” Eckhardt said. “We’ve got to have a 30- to 50-year view on this.”

Need for capacity

The current Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse at 1000 Guadalupe St., which will remain the county’s main courthouse if the bond passes, was constructed in the 1930s.

Retired Judge John Dietz said he has given dozens of tours of the courthouse to inform people about the reality of what staff and visitors see every day.

“We have used every possible space, and there is no way to expand,” Dietz said, adding much of the 158,000 square feet is taken up by hallways and common spaces.

Entrances are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and vacant, outdated jail cells are taking up space, he said.

“This is our IT department,” he said jokingly, resting his arm on a stack of computer parts past their prime.

At the proposed CFCC, space would be allocated for information technology infrastructure. The proposal includes courtrooms, a parking garage and safe waiting areas, Powell said.

Austin-based nonprofit SafePlace provides services such as emergency shelter, supportive housing, advocacy and legal assistance for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, said Emily Rudenick LeBlanc, SafePlace’s director of community advocacy.

When a client applies for a protective order, he or she meets at the courthouse with a protective advocate, LeBlanc said.

There is no civil courts safe room at the existing courthouse separated from perpetrators, she said, noting there is a safe room in the criminal courts area at the Heman Marion Sweatt courthouse.

Statute requires a safe room for civil courts, LeBlanc said. It is not uncommon for perpetrators to wait in the hallway or elevator for the victim, she said.

“It can be pretty traumatic and scary for the victims to know that they’re not protected from their perpetrator being able to see them or intimidate them during the court process,” she said. “If [the bond] doesn’t pass, we’re going to continue to do our best to keep survivors safe throughout court proceedings, but I think it’s a problem waiting to happen.”

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who represents Precinct 3, said he feels confident the proposal represents what the county needs.

“When this thing first started … we were talking about a $350 million project. So now we’ve got this thing down to [about] $288 million, and so we’ve certainly done a good job with that, knowing that people are anxious about affordability today,” Daugherty said.

Cost, location

The Commissioners Court sought ways to lower the CFCC budget as well as offset its tax burden, including selling under-utilized county property and using county parking revenue earned during evenings and weekends.

Travis County voters to weigh new civil, family courts bond The proposed $287.3 million Travis County Civil and Family Courts Complex will be located immediately south of Republic Square Park, down the street from the existing courthouse building.[/caption]

The court voted Aug. 11 to lower the $291.6 million budget set in February by $4.3 million.

An adjacent private office tower is planned for the property but will not be paid for by bond funds, and Eckhardt said the county will see cost savings by constructing it at the same time as the courts complex.

Affordability is a priority for Austin resident Bill Oakey, who said he has decided to remain neutral on the bond proposition.

Oakey, a blogger, said county leaders need to set priorities based on realistic assumptions about what the public can afford to pay.

He said if the county wants voters to approve the bond it should work with the city of Austin on developing a joint affordability initiative.

Location concerns

Most people will never have to walk into the civil courthouse, Eckhardt said.

Still, it is critical for people to have a place to resolve legal disputes, said Nancy Gray, director of communications for the Austin Bar Association, a professional association for attorneys. The courts complex plans include multipurpose space in a part of the building that can be accessed after hours, Gray said.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, it’s just going to take up space, and it’s going to be dark after 5 o’ clock,’ and it’s really not,” she said. “It’s designed to be alive after 5 with public-use space available for groups to rent out after hours for parties, meetings and events.”

Talks are underway with local arts groups who could use the space as a rehearsal or performance space, she said.

Maximizing the use of the space has been a focus for some members of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, President Meredith Powell said.

“One of the concerns I think probably for everybody in the city is that by that location being [developed] by the county it comes off of the tax roll, so I think everybody’s really interested—and everybody should be really interested—in what [the county is] going to do to ensure that the most amount of revenue could be garnered from the property,” she said.

Residents in the group care about the ground-floor activities, the pedestrian experience and what the building will look like, she said, adding she also hopes the county will help to be stewards of Republic Square Park, which is located adjacent to the proposed CFCC site.

DANA has been in communication with the team developing the CFCC proposal, she said.

  “I think they’re listening to the community, which is something that everybody appreciates,” she said, noting at press time DANA had not taken an official position on whether to support the bond.

Austinite David Holmes, who is running for the Travis County Commissioners Court Precinct 3 seat, said the old courthouse is “antiquated and dangerous” for people involved in trials.

“I hear some people’s argument that we should have it out of downtown, but when I hear that I think of all of the people who work in downtown offices who have to get in their cars multiple times a day and drive to that new courthouse, and it seems like a very bad idea to generate that much more traffic for building a courthouse out of downtown,” he said.

The Commissioners Court conducted site studies on sites throughout the county, and those sites had fewer bus lines or opportunities for parking garages than the proposed downtown site, Gray said.

Gray said the location is also in close proximity to attorneys in Austin, with most operating out of offices downtown.

Not everyone is in favor of the project. On Oct. 14, the Travis County Taxpayers Union and Travis County Republican Party both voiced opposition to the bond.

East Austin proposal

The TCTU wants the county and city to work together to collaborate on location options that are less expensive, TCTU analyst Bill Worsham said.

“This is just another straw that is breaking the camel’s back in terms of affordability,” he added.

Taxes and access are the main concerns for the TCRP, TCRP Communications Director Andy Hogue said.

“We need to put the courthouse closer to where there are actual families in Austin,” Hogue said, adding there are more families in East Austin.

Austin City Council Members Don Zimmerman and Ora Houston proposed a resolution Sept. 8 that would have city staff seek out land in East Austin on which the courthouse could be developed, such as near Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park.

“Putting the proposed courthouse downtown doesn’t make sense,” Zimmerman said in a statement.

Houston said the idea originated in 2014 from District 1 residents voicing concern that parking was difficult to find and costly in the downtown area, and the need for a courthouse presents an opportunity to establish a job center in East Austin. The resolution specifically asks that city-owned land be identified as possible sites for the courthouse. Such a trade of land to Travis County from the city would require voter approval.

Zimmerman asked the Audit and Finance Committee to consider the resolution in September. In response, the Austin Bar Association released a statement opposing that resolution.

Eckhardt said she thinks the proposal would be less efficient financially and less efficient from a functionality standpoint than the project outlined in current ballot language. She said the proposed location downtown would offer more accessibility for county residents using public transportation as well.

The Commissioners Court considered certificates of obligation and public-private partnerships to fund the new courts complex, but commissioners decided instead to go to the county’s voters, Eckhardt said.

“The feeling of property tax exhaustion is totally justified. … [But] we are long overdue for this piece of infrastructure,” she said.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Curington