Tough Sell or Vital Investment? A Look at Travis County's $300 Million Courthouse
This November’s election will be here before we know it, and while there aren’t many high-profile races or hot-button issues in the off-year election, there is one big-ticket item on the ballot: a nearly $300 million bond to build a new Travis County Civil and Family courthouse.
While nearly everyone seems to agree that Travis County needs a new courthouse – the existing Civil and Family Courthouse on Guadalupe Street was built in 1931, when Travis County had just 77,000 residents – some are concerned about the price tag for building a new one.
“For one thing, I don’t think it needs to be as big as what they have planned,” says Bill Oakey, a former accountant and affordability advocate in Austin. “They know themselves it’s going to be a tough sell for this courthouse.”
Oakey served on the citizen’s advisory committee to review the project. He has since resigned that position because, he says, the project is too expensive, with the bond coming in at $291,600,000 and that similar courthouse projects in other parts of the country cost less. Oakey says he thinks the project could be constructed for nearly $100 million less than what is being proposed.
Genevieve Van Cleve of the Community for Civil and Family Courthouse, a campaign group pushing for the bond, says the project would help alleviate the caseload that’s grown in tandem with Austin’s population.
“There are over a million people that live in Travis County. The CPS docket and the family court docket are exploding,” she says. "About every hundred years, counties do have to invest in new buildings. The current courthouse cannot be expanded. It's overwhelmed and unsafe.”
Another argument for the new courthouse’s size, she says, is to have enough room to separate survivors from their alleged attackers before court hearings.
While Oakey agrees the old courthouse is outdated, dilapidated and unsafe, he says that "this giant building [proposed] seems to me like it's pretty big for what we have [in the court system], and the new courts being created."
"That's a really big question that I think the community will want to think about," Oakey says. "They're planning on gradually building out all the courtrooms, so they're not going to the whole building filled with courtooms on the day it opens, they're going to gradually phase them in as they're needed."
The proposed courthouse would be 14 stories and built on what’s now a surface parking lot at 4th and Guadalupe Streets, which was purchased by the county for $21,750,000 back in 2010. The proposed courthouse would occupy the northern half of that lot, while the southern half could be leased out for retail and commercial development.
The bond is set to go before voters this November. If approved, it is estimated that the bond would raise property taxes some $40 a year for a home valued at $325,000.