County anticipates $1 billion moving bill
Master plan to 2035 calls for several county offices downtown.
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
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.