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Chamber of Commerce Justice center will keep downtown relevant

Mower County Commissioners are to be congratulated for choosing downtown Austin as the site for its planned new justice center. Hats off, too, to members of the Austin City Council, who seized the chance to work with the county to address concerns and ultimately develop a plan that is a "win-win" for both the city and the county.

A downtown site clearly offers the best opportunity for consolidating all county services, providing convenience for residents and greater efficiency for all operations. It also ties in with the city’s efforts to redevelop the downtown area. Working together, both units of government demonstrated a willingness to cooperate, and that bodes well for this and future projects of mutual interest.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of a downtown site is the fact that it will incorporate renovation of existing facilities with new construction. That will save taxpayer dollars at a time when everyone is concerned about rising costs and their ability to pay. One of the concerns the Chamber has expressed for years has been how a new justice center would impact existing facilities downtown and other county services.

It was not difficult to imagine, as Commissioner Ray Tucker noted at the Nov. 27 county board meeting, that construction of a justice center on a green field site could have led to eventual abandonment of all county operations in downtown Austin. Now those concerns have been laid to rest. County government will remain an important and integral part of the county seat’s downtown area.

There are certainly important challenges ahead. Key among them are costs. Commissioners will need to make serious cuts to keep the project within budget, and hold to their pledge not to burden taxpayers with more than $27 million in debt. They should also consider facility needs of Health and Human Services now, rather than later, and include those plans in one project. Additional, existing reserves, not new debt, should be used to address those needs.

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The needs of government must be balanced with the ability of taxpayers to pay.

Sandy Forstner is Executive Director of the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce. This was written on behalf of the Chamber’s board of directors.

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