Travis County 1 vote short of re­quest­ing 2 courts

Austin American-Statesman - - COMMUNITY NEWS - Con­tact Farzad Mashhood at 445-3972. Twit­ter: @ fmash­hood

needed to ask the leg­is­la­ture for the courts on Tues­day. Com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved mak­ing the re­quest 3-1, with Ron Davis ab­sent and Mar­garet Gómez vot­ing no. Com­mis­sion­ers need a four-vote su­per­ma­jor­ity to put the courts on a list of bills to lobby for dur­ing the up­com­ing leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

My con­stituents “make a very good case com­par­ing their home bud­get to ours in say­ing, ‘Why do you keep rais­ing taxes to pay for your needs?’ ” Gómez said.

The courts — which judges say are needed to han­dle a pro­jected in­crease in crim­i­nal cases— would be built no sooner than Jan­uary 2015 and cost county tax­pay­ers $4.2 mil­lion an­nu­ally plus up to $9.7 mil­lion in one­time costs.

County of­fi­cials back­ing the new courts said they agreed with Gomez’s con­cerns about costs, but said they tried to ad­dress it in the bill they are seek­ing: “That’s why we put in ‘sub­ject to the avail­abil­ity of lo­cal money.’ … No courts will be cre­ated un­til this court says it can hap­pen,” County At­tor­ney David Es­camilla said.

Gómez said she wants to see a de­tailed pro­jec­tion of fu­ture costs and tax rev­enue over the next five years be­fore she can back the new courts.

Judges and other county of­fi­cials have ar­gued the courts are needed to deal with a pro­jected in­crease in caseloads.

The two courts, a state district court and a county court, would be lo­cated in the Black­wellThur­man Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Cen­ter, ad­ja­cent to the county jail down­town.

Two weeks ago county of­fi­cials met with State Rep. El­liott Naish­tat and phoned state Sen. Kirk Wat­son, both Austin Democrats, to fig­ure out how to write a bill that would ask for the courts only if lo­cal dol­lars are avail- able. Naish­tat has writ­ten such a draft bill that would ask for the courts no ear­lier than Jan. 1, 2015. The county has yet to hear from the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil, which drafts bills for law­mak­ers, on whether such a bill is con­sti­tu­tional.

In ad­di­tion to the an­nual cost to op­er­ate the courts, county of­fi­cials es­ti­mated the courts would cost be­tween $8.7 mil­lion and $9.7 mil­lion in one-time 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, of­fi­cials said.

In­ter­est pay­ments on the debt would add an ad­di­tional $2 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to county es­ti­mates.

This year the county in­creased the tax rate by 3 per­cent, rais­ing the county prop­erty tax bill 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.

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