DALLAS — Travis County, Tex., commissioners are expected to ask voters in November for up to $300 million of general obligation bonds to finance a new courthouse in downtown Austin.
Commissioners voted Tuesday to purchase a parking lot for $21.8 million as the site for a new 17-story civil and family law courthouse. The county bought the land from the Austin Museum of Art. The courthouse is expected to cost $200 million to $300 million.
County Judge Samuel Biscoe said the courthouse proposal may be combined with a request for road bonds that could push the total debt being sought in November to $400 million to $500 million.
The county's $631 million of outstanding GO bonds are rated triple-A by Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's.
A citizens committee to decide on the details of the courthouse bond request will be appointed by commissioners in January. Biscoe said he expects a final project proposal by late summer.
Biscoe said the parking lot was the most feasible property in downtown Austin for the new courthouse. It is located near City Hall and is close to a new eight-story federal courthouse under construction.
The lot, which is between West Third, West Fourth, San Antonio, and Guadalupe streets, at one time was the site of the first Travis County courthouse built in 1855.
The parking lot is carried on the Travis Central Appraisal District tax rolls at $13.9 million, but an independent appraiser set the value at $21.3 million.
Biscoe said the county paid the museum more than the appraised value because others were interested in the property. The lot generates $300,000 a year in parking revenue.
The county has been discussing the need for a large, vacant, and buildable site in downtown Austin for three years, and actively looking for land for a year.
The parking lot was selected, Biscoe said, because it is a vacant, complete lot with no height restrictions.
Two county-owned blocks in downtown Austin were considered as the courthouse site, but they were rejected as too small for the planned 500,000-square-foot facility. The proposed 17-story structure could not be built on either site due to height restrictions in state laws prohibiting obstructions in the state capitol view corridor, he said.
The county has asked the Legislature several times to allow some exemptions to the height restrictions on new buildings in parts of downtown Austin, but has been unsuccessful.
Other sites outside of downtown Austin were considered, Biscoe said, but would require demolition of existing structures that would raise the cost of building the courthouse.
Biscoe said the county's civil courthouse is 80 years old and must be replaced soon.
"We determined this was our best move," Biscoe said.
The new facility will be designed to accommodate future expansions as needed so it can serve the county's needs for 70 to 80 years.
The courthouse is part of the county's Central Campus plan to expand offices and courts in downtown Austin over the next 25 years to serve the county, which now has more than one million residents. The plan calls for doubling the county's downtown space by 2035 to keep pace with population growth.
Travis County purchased a downtown office building and parking garage for $61.3 million in June.
Biscoe said voters in Austin may be exhausted from five successful bond referenda in the past seven years, but was confident the courthouse bonds would prove popular.
The county held a bond election in 2005, the city passed bond proposals in 2006 and 2010, and the Austin Independent School District passed a bond package in 2008.
Travis County's 1,040 square miles encompasses Austin and the main campus of the University of Texas.
The county posted double-digit tax base growth from fiscal 2007 to 2009. Taxable valuation peaked at $98.4 billion in fiscal 2010, but fell 6.5% to $91.9 billion in fiscal 2011.