Having failed three years ago to get voter approval for a new family and civil courts building downtown, the Travis County Commissioners Court this week voted unanimously to take on $328.5 million in certificates of obligation to complete the project.
Taxpayer-backed certificates of obligation, unlike bonds, need no voter approval, although the commissioners court was required by law to wait at least three years to override a public vote on a similar but less expensive project.
Voters in November 2015 rejected, by 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent, a bond proposal for a downtown courthouse project with a $30 million smaller price tag.
The commission’s decision Tuesday infuriated those who led the opposition three years ago, but it also surprised some who had staunchly supported the project.
As late as November, the Austin Bar Association had been given the impression by Travis County’s community outreach staff that the commission was seeking a partnership with private companies to take on as much as half of the overall cost of the project, ABA executive director DeLaine Ward told The Texas Monitor. Ward said she was also led to believe the commission had scaled back the project.
The bar association, which had formed a political action committee to push for the new courthouse in 2015, still believes Travis County sorely needs more space that is more modern, Ward said.
“We recognize the need is there and that it should be done as soon as possible,” Ward said. “But I thought this was going to be done as a public-private partnership, at least 50-50. I am really surprised by this, very much so.”
Shelley Law, the community outreach liaison hired by Travis County to work with the bar association and others, on Friday declined to answer questions about the project’s funding and scale, directing queries to the commissioners.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who vowed to get the courthouse built in spite of the 2015 election and proposed using certificates of obligation, did not return a call seeking comment from The Texas Monitor.
On Tuesday, Eckhardt and the other commissioners approved the $328.5 million in 20-year certificates of obligation and committed another $16.1 million in county taxpayer dollars for the project at the 1700 block of Guadalupe Street, according to the county’s proposal.
The 430,000-square-foot building, to house 25 new courtrooms and with nearly 400 underground parking spaces, is scheduled to open sometime in 2023, according to the plan.
Although he voted for it, Gerald Daugherty told fellow commissioners several times Tuesday that the public might see their approval as a repudiation of the 2015 vote, according to the Austin Monitor.
“It puts you in an awkward spot when you’re trying to convince somebody that you’re moving forward on something when the voters told you no,” Daugherty said.
Eckhardt replied to Daugherty, “Please don’t keep saying that we are going against the voters’ will,” according to the Monitor. “They told us no to a specific dollar figure, a specific financing mechanism on a specific location, a location that was dearly prized by the private development interests.”
While it wasn’t mentioned at the commissioners’ meeting, the new courthouse project is expected to trigger the renovation and historic preservation of the current civil court facility, the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, at an estimated taxpayer cost of as much as $100 million, according to the Travis County facilities master plan (please see page 36 of the plan).
The commissioners court has for nearly two decades wrestled with what to do with the Sweatt Courthouse, opened in 1931 and reviled by many of the people who work and do business there.
In a statement in support of a new courthouse, the Austin Bar Association in June 2015 wrote, “There are many problems with the old courthouse – as one might imagine in any building built during the Hoover administration: lack of technology, fire hazards, rat infestations, lead paint, leaky roof, old plumbing and air conditioning, limited access for the disabled and ADA compliance issues, just to name a few. But of primary concern is the lack of safety and security for women, children and families.”
Commissioners that year proposed building a new courthouse on county-owned land at 308 Guadalupe St. at a total cost of $313 million, $287 million of it to be raised by issuing bonds.
The Austin Bar Association initially proposed that the project be split between public and private funding, Ward said, but agreed to support all-public funding if voters approved. According to campaign finance reports, the bar association’s Community for Civil and Family Courthouse PAC spent more than $230,000 rallying support for the bond issue.
Speaking up only weeks before the election, then-Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman and Roger Falk, head of the Travis County Taxpayers Union, proposed the commission reconsider and build a much more modest courthouse in East Austin.
The Real Estate Council of Austin joined the opposition but pledged no financial support. In all, Zimmerman estimated opponents spent no more than $3,000 before the election.
When the bond proposal was narrowly defeated, Eckhardt blamed the result on an off-election year voter turnout of less than 12 percent. This “was not a rejection of the project or of the location,” she said. “It was a lack of interest in our democracy.”
An Austin American-Statesman analysis chastised Eckhardt for rejecting the results of the election. “Losing a bond election? Big deal,” Eckhardt said in the story. “The bigger deal is that not enough of our community is sufficiently engaged in one of the basic tenets of our democracy, which is providing justice to all segments of our community.”
“While turnout in most elections is pathetic and shameful, it wasn’t a lack of turnout that defeated the new courthouse,” the Statesman wrote. “It wasn’t voters who failed to engage in democracy, but courthouse proponents who failed to engage voters — specifically enough potential voters willing to support their proposal.”
On Tuesday, Eckhardt reiterated that “We are not going forward against the vote of the people.”
“I don’t know how she can say that,” Falk told The Texas Monitor. “Of course she’s saying the voters were wrong. The certificates of obligation are a slap in the face to voters and the democratic system.”
The certificates also preclude calling for another election, Zimmerman told The Texas Monitor.
“If you had some respect for the voters, you would have changed something up,” he said. “This could have been done in East Austin for a fraction of the cost. Why have a vote if you ignore the will of the voters? She’s just flipping the finger to them.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].