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Vote No - Downtown Not Best Site for Courthouse

October 30, 2015

In 1839, when the former Waterloo settlement adopted the name Austin and became the capital of the Republic of Texas, Austin officially became a government town. We’ve largely been that way ever since and, for the most part, it has served us well, cushioning us from deep recessions, providing a steady base of employment and helping us draw visitors from all over the state, nation and world.

But, from a fiscal standpoint, there are drawbacks because property taxes are a zero-sum game. For every tax-exempt building at the city, county, state, school district, ACC, Central Health and federal level (I know I’m missing others), a residence or commercial building owned by private individuals or businesses must pick up the slack in property taxes.

It’s the main reason why the RECA Board of Directors last week took a position on the Travis County Courthouse bond proposal, just as we did in last year’s Proposition 1 bond (for roads and rail), the affordable housing bonds in 2013 and just about every other major bond issue that has required voter approval in Travis County since RECA’s founding in 1991. It’s our responsibility as a civic organization to look out for the interests of our association community AND our Central Texas community. If the two don’t align, we don’t opine.

Austin is currently in an affordability crisis, much of which can be attributed to a gap between our growing community’s housing needs and the amount and type of supply being produced. As a result, not only are housing costs unaffordable for many Austinites, but escalating land values are leading to ever-higher property taxes. The use of the proposed downtown location on the south side of Republic Square Park for a courthouse that could be located elsewhere does nothing to address that crisis; in fact it could deepen the already existing problem.

By constructing the new courthouse on an expensive downtown parcel with great development potential, Travis County is depriving Austin (and itself) the tax base of that location. A private development that made the most of this block’s entitlements would result in hundreds of millions of dollars in local tax revenue in the coming decades.

If you live in Travis County, you have the opportunity until Friday to cast your early vote before the election takes place on Nov. 3. The immediate fiscal impacts are pretty clear. If you are a homeowner, your property taxes will increase to pay for the $287 million in bonds to construct the Travis Civil and Family Courthouse. But the less discussed, long-term fiscal impact is more profound because of the significant loss in tax revenue to fix our roads, care for our sick and needy, and educate our children, among other things.

The Republic Square parcel is in the southwest quadrant of Downtown Austin, which is already booming with the redevelopment of the Seaholm and Green Water properties as well as office, residential, and hotel projects. This parcel is a logical place for more of the same kind of responsible mixed-use, marketplace-friendly and transit-supporting development that Austin is successfully creating in its urban core. We must be more strategic as a community when we consider how to use our finite supply of Downtown land, and more innovative when we think of how to use the major investment in a civil courthouse to create the greatest benefits.

Voters should hit the pause button, vote no on this bond proposal and re-engage with the county and other stakeholders to find a more appropriate courthouse location.

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