Staffers to meet with leg­is­la­tors about bill

Courts

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - A Con­tact Farzad Mashhood at 445-3972. Twit­ter: @fmash­hood

in­creas­ing other ser­vices.

Tues­day’s pro­posal fell short of ask­ing the state to ap­prove cre­ation of the two courts that are meant to ad­dress the con­cerns of 13 judges who say they need new district and county courts.

Com­mis­sioner Mar­garet Gómez said she was hes­i­tant to ask Travis County tax­pay­ers to back the cost of new courts. “I have con­stituents that have run into me at church, at the gro­cery store — ev­ery day — and their is­sue is, ‘Please, keep the ex­pen­di­tures down to keep the taxes down,’ ” Gómez said.

Gómez ab­stained on the 4-0 vote that di­rected county staffers to meet with leg­is­la­tors, in­clud­ing Austin’s state Sen. Kirk Wat­son and state Rep. El­liott Naish­tat, to see if they can write a bill that asks for the two courts but al­lows the county to choose when to open them. The bill would be the first of its kind, county of­fi­cials said, be­cause such bills usu­ally in­clude a date when the courts will be opened.

In ad­di­tion to the an­nual bill for the courts, county of­fi­cials es­ti­mated the courts would cost be­tween $8.7 mil­lion and $9.7 mil­lion in one­time costs for fur­nish­ing new rooms and shift­ing of­fice space. The ma­jor­ity of those one-time costs would be paid for by bonds is­sued with­out voter ap­proval. Debt pay­ments would cost an­other $2 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to county es­ti­mates.

This year the county in­creased the tax rate by 3 per­cent, rais­ing the county prop­erty tax on an av­er­age-value home by about $25 and bring­ing in an ad­di­tional $11.2 mil­lion in prop­erty taxes. To raise an ad­di­tional $4.2 mil­lion for the two courts in this year’s bud­get would have meant an ad­di­tional $9.40 in prop­erty taxes on an av­er­agevalue home.

A county report found that five district courts, which han­dle felony cases, are needed im­me­di­ately be­cause of pop­u­la­tion growth and a com­men­su­rate in­crease in crime. The report also said Travis County needs an ad­di­tional county court, which han­dles mis­de­meanors.

“It would be dif­fi­cult for the county to fund (five more district courts),” Judge Julie Ko­curek said. The county has been need­ing more courts for about a decade, Ko­curek said, and hav­ing an ad­di­tional pair would al­low judges to “spend more time with the de­fen­dants and re­ha­bil­i­tate them, rather than just lock them up and ware­house them.”

While the county has a pol­icy of rais­ing prop­erty taxes by no more than 3 per­cent an­nu­ally, state law al­lows it to raise taxes by 8 per­cent with­out an elec­tion. Leg­is­la­tors have pro­posed bills call­ing for rev­enue caps of 5 and 3 per­cent in past years, and sim­i­lar bills have been filed again for the up­com­ing ses­sion. A county fi­nan­cial report found that lower caps would still al­low it to fund the courts but make ex­pand­ing other ex­pen­di­tures un­likely.

“We clearly can still af­ford the courts even if the caps oc­cur,” Com­mis­sioner Sarah Eck­hardt said.

Staffers are ex­pected to meet with leg­is­la­tors this week and report back to the com­mis­sion­ers Tues­day or Dec. 18. The ear­li­est the new courts could be up and run­ning is 2015.

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