The Travis County Commissioners Court accepted a committee report for the new civil and family courthouse during its Aug. 7 meeting.
Leslie Browder, Planning and Budget Office executive, said a 15-member committee spent May through July discussing whether the county should use a design-build format or a public-private partnership to build its new courthouse.
In a design-build format, one contractor handles both design and construction duties. This is in contrast to the more traditional form of building, in which multiple agencies handle design, construction and operations.
The committee was tasked with offering a recommendation to the court about how to build a new civil and family courthouse based on an analysis done by consultant Ernst & Young.
The committee's report states that the committee believes the public-private partnership is the better delivery method for the new courthouse.
Betty Dunkerley, committee chairwoman and former Austin mayor pro tem, said there were several reasons why the committee believes this.
▪ There is a great need for the courthouse, she said.
"[The current county courthouse] is not just sad, it is embarrassing to the county," said committee Vice Chairwoman Martha Dickie. "I have practiced in that courthouse, and you can barely practice there. All of the county officials there are struggling to make it work and do make it work. But on any given month, their efforts could be shut down based on the struggles they face on a daily basis."
▪ A public-private partnership, or P3, would offer a single point of contact for design, construction, maintenance and operations.
▪ Vendors would enjoy greater collaboration under a P3.
▪ A P3 would offer greater flexibility, she said.
"When the proposals come in, we can have a concept about what the contractor would think the building would be like," she said. "We would get input earlier."
▪ A P3 could build the building faster—and by avoiding a prolonged construction, more cost-effectively—than a design-build method, she said.
▪ The county could transfer risk to a third party during the design, construction and maintenance of the building, according to backup materials.
▪ The materials add that performance and reliability would be more assured under a P3 approach. The contract is performance-based, and payment can be stopped if criteria are not met, a committee member noted.
The committee had talked about the concept of being a good neighbor downtown and opening up part of the property to retail development. The committee stands behind the report and produced no minority report for dissenting opinions.
Estimated to cost $200 million–$300 million to construct, the courthouse project would be the largest in county history. Commissioners discussed how the county plans to pay for the project, offering certificates of obligation or a ballot measure as options.
Commissioner Margaret Gomez supported putting the courthouse on the ballot for voters to consider. The situation becomes more complicated if voters do not approve the measure.
Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt asked a hypothetical question: Could the county issue $205 million in bonds for the courthouse if voters turned down the project? The county attorney said there was not an easy answer and suggested that the court discuss it in executive session.
Dunkerley said the project cannot wait another five years and has been delayed too long.
"If we move quickly, we can have significant cost savings. We fundamentally cannot afford to delay," she said.
Committee members said there is no scenario in which the project becomes less expensive over time.