Travis County Courthouse Bond Fails in Final Moments
By Samantha Reichstein
The Travis County Courthouse Bond proposal of $287 million lost narrowly in Tuesday’s election. The bond was allocated toward building a new civil and family court complex on Fourth and Guadalupe Streets.
The current Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse, built in 1931, is located on 10th and Guadalupe Streets and was last renovated in 1962. Both groups, either for or against the bond, agreed the current facility was overcrowded and dilapidated, with lawyers and clients meeting in corridors on any given workday, and entrances inaccessible for those with disabilities. Disagreement, however, arose over where the new courthouse should be built.
Austin City Council member Don Zimmerman, who led strong opposition against the bond, told KXAN last week that placing the courthouse downtown was the worst possible place that could be chosen.
“We are proposing to move the courthouse to East Austin, build it for 25 to 50 percent less and have acres of freely-available parking,” Zimmerman said. “The east side of Austin has been promised economic development projects for more than a generation, and those projects have never been forthcoming. This is an opportunity to build a civil courthouse we need that is much less expensive.”
Other organizations such as the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Travis County Taxpayers Union backed Zimmerman’s opposition. They agreed that a courthouse in East Austin would best suit the city and its taxpayers. If the bond had passed, Travis County homeowners would be paying a minimum additional fee of $42 in property taxes each year.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt led the fight for the new courthouse by saying that building it anywhere else in Austin would not change its price. Eckhardt told The Austin-American Statesman that she sees the large number on taxpayers; however, it is going to roughly be that number no matter where the facility is built.
Sammy Minkowitz, a 19-year-old government sophomore from Houston, said she voted in the 2015 Travis County election the first day of early voting. Minkowitz said she believed that the bond should have been approved, because it was a necessary government expense.
“This money is going towards creating a courthouse that can accommodate all of the people it needs to, and still work efficiently,” Minkowitz said. “This is a long-term investment that I personally think is worth it.”
Charlie Henry, the University Democrats Secretary and engineering junior from Dallas, said the downtown location was essential to the city of Austin.
“This downtown location allows numerous bus routes that can help out those without means of transportation,” Henry said. “Simply for the reason of justice, it needs to be built there.”
Those in opposition, however, influenced the outcome of the Travis County Courthouse Bond as it lost 51-to-47 percent in its final vote.
Since the bond did not pass, the question of what happens next depends on the Commissioners Court, according to Belinda Powell, the strategic planning manager of the Travis County Planning and Budget Office. Powell was interviewed after the election but was unsure of further plans.
“I would have not recommended the proposed concept to be placed on the ballot if I did not think it was the most financially responsible and legal approach to the needed space,” Powell said. “I know the Commissioners Court will be getting briefings next Tuesday, but decisions on whether to move forward or drop the plan may not be made until much later.”