in Houston, Texas
Travis County committee wants to bypass voters on courthouse project
Wednesday, Aug 08, 2012, 11:57AM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Travis County taxpayers ought not be trusted with something as important as $205 million of their money to contribute to building a new $343 million Travis County courthouse in downtown Austin.

Instead, a committee is recommending the county issue bonds that do not need voter approval, the Austin American-Statesman reports. The 14-member committee is made up, coincidentally, of people appointed by the Travis County Commissioner’s Court, future occupants of the courthouse.

These vote-free bonds will add just $70 a year to the bill of the average county taxpayer, chairwoman Betty Dunkerley, former Austin assistant city manager and City Council member, told the Statesman.

Dunkerley, once referred to by the Austin Chronicle as the City Council’s “revered financial sage,” said the county has no time to waste on a vote that might not be scheduled for more than a year.

Citizens, the former Austin assistant city manager said, are at risk walking into and out of the crowded 82-year-old county courthouse on 10th and Guadalupe Streets.

Dunkerley, showing she was still deserving of reverence, said the committee was also recommending the county build the courthouse in partnership with a private company. At an estimated additional $4 million.

The sum is a pittance when you recall Travis County flying solo when it built the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center a decade ago. The center opened three years late for $45 million, more than twice its budgeted estimate and left a passel of lawsuits in its wake.

"The more risk you off-load, the better off you are, even if it costs you a little bit extra. ... It would take only one really bad thing to happen to that building and us being stuck with the bill to close that gap," Dunkerley told the newspaper.

Which sounds like the motive behind keeping county voters as far away from the project and the bonds to pay for it as possible.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of bypass via the University of Alaska.

Friday, 08/10/2012 - 05:01PM

The Commissioner's Court does not occupy the courthouse, that is a fallacy. This new building is a Civil and Family Courthouse. The commissioners already have very nice offices in another downtown building on Lavaca Street. The reason this would ideally not go to voters is because it is a non-discretionary county facility that is absolutely needed to serve the judicial system of the county. Voters have elected the County Commissioners by democratic vote to make sure county services are provided properly.

Furthermore, the point of delivering this project through a Public-Private Partnership is precisely to avoid the outcome we saw with the Blackwell-Thurman Center, which will keep this project on budget and on time. Travis County residents need to recognize this as an opportunity to build a long overdue judicial facility to improve the wait times for lawsuits in this county and effectively serve justice. It is also an opportunity for a new, iconic symbol of community pride and democracy in the heart of downtown Austin.

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