Travis County Needs a New Courthouse – And Voters Can Make That Happen

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Along with with seven statewide propositions all Texans will have an opportunity to vote for in this election, voters in Travis County will also have a county bond to consider.

The bond would give the county $287 million to build a new courthouse downtown. This would come down to about $13.50 per year for every $100,000 of taxable value for property owners in Austin. For an average value home, around $360,000, the homeowner would pay about $39. The bond is set to be repaid over the course of 20 years.

At a time when affordability is on the minds of many residents in Travis County, a measure that raises taxes could be unpopular. Speaking to the Austin American Statesman, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said, “There’s certainly some political capital on the line, but it’s one of those things where if you’re a public servant, there’s an obvious choice,” she said. “We need it.”

The courthouse currently serving Travis County was built in 1931, when the population of Austin was a mere 77,000. The courthouse was built to house three courtrooms, but it has since been expanded to hold 19. Even at this full capacity, the courthouse simply isn’t able to meet the needs of the 1.2 million residents in Travis County today.

Not only would residents in the county benefit from a courthouse with the capacity to house more courtrooms, this lack of space can also create an unsafe environment for those seeking help for family issues.

Safeplace, a local shelter and resource center for victims of sexual and domestic violence, has endorsed the bond proposal because of its potential impact on survivors. In a statement explaining the endorsement, Executive Director Julia Spann said:

    Most victims of domestic violence are terrified of seeing the persons who abused them when they go to court. They are scared that their abuser will be angry and revengeful that they applied for a protective order, they worry for their own safety as well as for their children. At the courthouse in Travis County, we do not have “safe rooms” where victims can wait separate from the person who has hurt them – there is not room to provide these spaces. At our current courthouse, it is almost inevitable that a victim will come face to face with the abuser in the hallway, the elevator or the courtroom. No wonder so many victims are too afraid to file charges or to go to court!”

For differently-abled Travis county residents, the outdated building can create literal hurdles to their ability to seek justice. Rudy Metayer, President of the Austin Black Lawyers Association, specifically points to the need for an ADA-compliant courthouse in his endorsement of the bond:

    “As a health law attorney, I am especially shocked and disappointed to see that people with physical disabilities are unable to access all the courtrooms in the present courthouse. In fact, I have heard from many who are frustrated and embarrassed about the numerous hurdles that must be overcome just to have their day in court. The inability to access all the courtrooms limit when and where a case can be heard which limits the time frame in which justice can be dispensed. Such delays literally keep people from seeking the aid of the law in matters near and dear to their heart.”

It is hard to argue against the need for a new courthouse in Travis County. Even those who oppose the bond aren’t taking issue with it’s necessity, instead focusing on the specifics of the plan – which has been under consideration for years.

Opponents have mainly taken issue with the proposed downtown location, arguing that taxpayers could save money if the building was planned in East Austin, and also that there would be more widely available surface parking.

Not only does the plan include an underground garage, but the proposed downtown location is arguably more accessible for those using public transportation than a location outside of Central Austin would be. The proposed site of the new courthouse is walking distance from 54 bus routes.

Travis County needs a new courthouse. By approving this bond, Travis county residents can ensure that their courthouse is safer, more accessible, and better able to serve their growing community for years to come.

For information about where and when to vote in Travis County, visit the election site here. Early voting continues until this Friday, October 30th, and Election Day is on November 3rd.

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About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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