County an­tic­i­pates $1 bil­lion mov­ing bill

Master plan to 2035 calls for sev­eral county of­fices down­town.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - fmash­hood@states­man.com

By Farzad Mashhood

Since start­ing on a plan to guide its of­fice space own­er­ship down­town, Travis County has been slowly buy­ing prop­erty there, tak­ing valu­able parcels off tax rolls to make room for an ex­pand­ing government. The ex­pected price tag over 26 years is $1.2 bil­lion, a cost an in­com­ing county com­mis­sioner thinks is too high and can be trimmed by adding of­fices in places other than down­town.

The spend­ing is guided by a master plan look­ing out to 2035 that calls for keep­ing some county of­fices down­town and ex­pand­ing the space for them as ser­vices in­crease to meet pop­u­la­tion growth. The plan’s hefty spend­ing pre­dic­tion in­cludes the pur­chase, con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tion of down­town build­ings needed to ac­com­plish that.

Last month, the county closed on its most re­cent pur­chase, $7.25 mil­lion for a quar­ter-acre park­ing lot on

the cor­ner of 11th and San An­to­nio streets that is ex­pected to be the site of a mul­ti­story of­fice tower. The pur­chase wasn’t part of the plan, but of­fi­cials say it will be in­cor­po­rated into it and prob­a­bly re­place some of the other build­ing ex­penses.

A build­ing there — there are no solid es­ti­mates on how much it would cost — could house county pros­e­cu­tors across the street from the crim­i­nal courts and would fit into the master plan’s goal of keep­ing the county’s jail, court­rooms and re­lated de­part­ments in the same cou­ple of blocks.

The $1.2 bil­lion es­ti­mate it­self is loose — this year’s $7.25 mil­lion pur­chase of land isn’t in­cluded, nor is the $63 mil­lion pur­chase of a new county head­quar­ters in 2010 or $22.4 mil­lion in 2010 for a down­town block that would house a civil court­house. As more of the projects on the list are ac­tu­ally done, that num­ber will be­come more real­is­tic, but now it’s a “very high-level es­ti­mate,” said Belinda Pow­ell, the county’s strate­gic plan­ning man­ager.

For Ger­ald Daugh­erty, a one-time county com­mis­sioner re­turn­ing to of­fice in Jan­uary, keep­ing the courts down­town is fine, but other county of­fices should move to cheaper ground. He was crit­i­cal of the county’s pur­chase of the 700 Lavaca build­ing, to which county com­mis­sion­ers moved in Au­gust as their new head­quar­ters; sev­eral de­part­ments have also been moved there.

“For the life of me, I don’t un­der­stand why the de­ci­sion was made to stay ad­min­is­tra­tively on the most ex­pen­sive real es­tate in Austin,” Daugh­erty said in a re­cent in­ter­view. He sug­gested that the com­mis­sion­ers and many de­part­ments could also move to cheaper ar­eas, such as the county’s so­called North Cam­pus along Air­port Boule­vard, where much of the county clerk’s of­fice and the emer­gency ser­vices de­part­ment are.

But the down­town master plan calls for many of­fices to stay down­town: com­mis­sion­ers, the plan­ning and bud­get de­part­ment, the au­di­tor’s and pur­chas­ing of­fices, ad­min­is­tra­tive de­part­ments such as in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and hu­man re­sources, the jus­tice and pub­lic safety de­part­ment, and the de­part­ments deal­ing with county fa­cil­i­ties, roads and parks. Those of­fices, in ad­di­tion to the courts and jail, put about 2,000 staffers down­town in 2009, when the master plan last sur­veyed that num­ber.

By 2015, the county will have about 2,500 work­ers down­town; the plan es­ti­mates there will be 3,000 in 2025 and 3,600 in 2035 — a 78 per­cent in­crease in down­town county staffing from 2009 to 2035. To meet that in­crease, the plan es­ti­mates the county will need to more than dou­ble its of­fice space down­town, from 532,000 square feet in 2009 to 1.2 mil­lion square feet in 2035.

Most of the ma­jor costs for the plan so far have been paid by bonds that don’t re­quire ap­proval by vot­ers, but gen­eral fund spend­ing from the bud­get has also been used. For ex­am­ple, the county will pay about $10 mil­lion for some of the ren­o­va­tions in the Ned Granger Build­ing on the north­east cor­ner of 11th and Guadalupe streets, bud­get doc­u­ments show.

The com­mis­sion­ers ul­ti­mately de­cide whether each ex­pen­di­ture is put on the bal­lot, which can take a year or longer, or is paid with the faster op­tion that doesn’t need voter ap­proval.

Ear­lier this year, com­mis­sion­ers con­sid­ered build­ing a pro­posed civil court­house — most re­cently es­ti­mated to cost the county at least $205 mil­lion — with­out putting it be­fore vot­ers, but since then a ma­jor­ity of com­mis­sion­ers have said they want to put it on a bal­lot. Con­tact Farzad Mashhood at 445-3972. Twit­ter: @fmash­hood

PHO­TOS BY AlBerTO MArTínez / AMer­i­CAn-STATeS­MAn

Travis County pur­chased this build­ing at 700 Lavaca St., and county com­mis­sion­ers moved there in Au­gust, mak­ing it their new head­quar­ters. Sev­eral other de­part­ments also have moved there.

Travis County prop­erty down­town is bounded by Lavaca, Guadalupe, 10th and 11th streets. The county will have 2,500 work­ers down­town in 2015. There were 2,000 in 2009.

The county will pay about $10 mil­lion for some of the ren­o­va­tions in the Ned Granger Build­ing on the north­east cor­ner of 11th and Guadalupe streets.

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