Staffers to meet with legislators about bill
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.