Travis County 1 vote short of requesting 2 courts
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.