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In Travis County’s Courthouse Bond Campaign, A Challenger Emerges

From Travis County
A broken water heater on the 5th floor of the Travis County Courthouse caused flooding Wednesday morning.

From the Austin Monitor: With less than a month to go before Election Day, the first organized effort to oppose Travis County’s $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond has finally materialized.

The Travis County Taxpayers Union, backed by Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, held a press conference at City Hall on Wednesday to urge voters to reject the proposal that has bipartisan support from the Travis County Commissioners Court.

Speaking to those voters, Bill Worsham, an analyst for the TCTU, said, “Tell the county and city to work together on real alternatives, and when the time comes … support a reasonable alternative that works for families and taxpayers. This is not that time.”

Preempting any recriminations of not offering constructive ideas to the conversation, Zimmerman brought up a recent proposal he floated with Council Member Ora Houston that calls on the county to build the courthouse in an as-yet undetermined area of East Austin.

As it stands, the bond that voters will decide on in November will fund a 14-story concrete and steel tower on the current site of a parking lot at Guadalupe and West Fourth streets. Zimmerman and Worsham spent much of Wednesday’s press conference attacking that plan and defending what they characterized as the more frugal East Austin alternative.

“I have consulted with a number of real estate investors and developers who do projects,” Zimmerman explained. “The project could be about 25 to 50 percent less expensive if we sell off the $30 million property downtown, move it into East Austin on less expensive property, and use a four-story structure – a commercial structure made out of wood instead of steel and concrete – and have surface parking.”

Parking, congestion and the removal of prime real estate from the tax rolls were among the varied arguments Zimmerman and the TCTU deployed against the November bond. Worsham said that the planned underground parking garage in the county’s proposal won’t provide enough spaces for everyone who has to use the courthouse, including litigants and juries. He also dismissed the county’s proposal to offset construction costs by charging for public parking during nights and weekends, which the Travis County Planning and Budget Office estimates could be worth as much as $1 million per year.

“So what if you can sell the parking and offset the cost? That’s not a huge economic engine to offset the cost of a city block,” Worsham told the Austin Monitor.

Worsham also said the location is inconvenient and expensive to access for the majority of county residents who live outside of downtown Austin, despite the scores of bus routes that already run down Guadalupe Street.

Both Zimmerman and Worsham were also skeptical about the county’s proposal to further offset the cost of the courthouse by allowing a private developer to build a second, complementary tower on the site. Zimmerman – who says his East Austin alternative would spur economic development – said the second tower idea “sounds like a lot of speculation, and there’s no guarantee that that development could take place.”

He argued that the county should simply sell the entire block and let a developer maximize the use of the real estate.

“We don’t have enough supply for housing,” Zimmerman said. “And this particular piece of property that’s worth about $30 million could be developed into another high-rise residential building and relieve some of our housing shortage, and it would also contribute to the property tax rolls somewhere probably (around) at least $6 million a year.”

When asked whether he believed the county needs to replace the 84-year-old Sweatt Courthouse, Zimmerman equivocated, saying, “I think the answer to that could be maybe. I think some of the residents say there is a need. Others would say not.”

As for the possibility of shooting down the courthouse bond and forcing the county to continue using the aging Sweatt building during the years-long process it would take to plan and approve his alternative, Zimmerman said, “There is no crisis with the current facility, because they’ve been making do with it since the 1930s.”

Genevieve Van Cleve, the leader of the campaign supporting the bond proposal, silently watched the conference from behind the press scrum but afterward stated in rather clear terms what she thought of the TCTU and Zimmerman’s ideas.

Van Cleve slammed Zimmerman’s East Austin proposal as “incredibly disingenuous” and characterized his motivation as reflexive obstructionism against any whiff of new taxes.

“I assume that he believes that there is a fairy,” Van Cleve said. “A free-money fairy that comes down and builds your roads and flushes your toilets and builds your courthouses.”

Van Cleve also told the Monitor that an incident earlier Wednesday morning illustrated the urgent need to replace the decaying Sweatt Courthouse. She provided pictures of workers cleaning up water from a busted water heater on the building’s fifth floor.

When the Monitor went to examine the problem after the press conference, a reporter discovered that the mess had largely been cleaned up, save for the water-logged ceiling tiles. A cursory inspection of the building also revealed that one of the three elevators was out of order and a urinal in the fifth-floor men’s room was covered in a plastic tarp. A courthouse employee later told the Monitor that the urinal had nothing to do with the morning’s leak.

Early voting begins on Monday, Oct. 19.