Travis County voters to weigh new civil, family courts bond this fall

Election Guide 2015 | Northwest Austin EditionTravis 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.

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 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.

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Entrances are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and vacant, outdated jail cells are taking up space, he said.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

Local nonprofit SafePlace provides legal assistance for victims of sexual and domestic violence in the Central Texas area, including Pflugerville, said Emily Rudenick LeBlanc, 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 current courthouse separating them from perpetrators, she said.

“It can be pretty traumatic and scary for the victims to know that they’re not protected from their perpetrator. ... I think it’s a problem waiting to happen,” she said.

Cost, location

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

“When this thing first started … we were talking about a $350 million project,” Daugherty said.

The Commissioners Court sought ways to lower the budget as well as offset the tax burden, including selling under-utilized county property and using parking revenue from evenings and weekends. 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 leaders need to set priorities based on realistic assumptions about what the public can afford to pay.

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

Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman and Council Member Ora Houston proposed a resolution Sept. 8 that would have city staff seek out land in East Austin for the site.

Eckhardt said she thinks the proposal would be less efficient financially and functionally than the project outlined in current ballot language.

“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