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Travis TNR Director Geiselman handles broad list of responsibilities

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners get most of the attention when it comes to making decisions for the county’s future, but more often than not the responsibility for carrying out those decisions falls to Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman.


Gieselman says constituents might be surprised to learn the complexities of his job. TNR’s authority covers what would be six or seven different departments in city government. His responsibilities include: maintenance of 1,200 miles of county roads; all new construction, whether it’s bridges, roads, parks or preserves; maintaining the county vehicle fleet; enforcement and regulation of environmental programs; all the parks and the preserves, the on-site sewage programs, landfill maintenance, and burying indigents in the international cemetery.


Certainly Gieselman has the experience to understand this array of responsibilities. He told In Fact Daily that after getting a bachelor’s degree in economics, it was his graduate studies in urban and regional planning, through Texas A&M, that led him into his career and ultimately to Travis County. Gieselman also holds an MBA from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.


Geiselman, a Dallas-born self-titled “Army brat” who has lived all over the world and speaks fluent Spanish, spent a year working with a grant from the Ford Foundation in Venezuela before coming back to Texas to work within the state government. “That horse got shot out from under my legs,” Gieselman wryly notes, and in 1975 he found himself working for Travis County, where he’s been ever since.


The county has changed dramatically in those 35 years, Geiselman said. “When I first came, there were 4 or 5 of us in the county engineer’s office. That same group now is about 450 people. At the time the county engineers advised individual commissioners who were each in charge of their own road and bridge office.”


He said other than population growth and issues with county authority, the most notable change has been constituent expectations. “As we become more urban they expect urban levels of services in the unincorporated areas,” he said. “What the city can do the county should be able to do, and that’s not the case.”


To illustrate the position of county government, he points to home rule cities that can enact any regulation they want as long as it’s constitutional. “It’s the flip opposite for the counties. We can’t do anything, even levy a fee, unless it’s explicitly authorized by the state legislature. Sometimes we get enabled to do things but they don’t give us the wherewithal to pay for it.”


Gieselman says finances are one of the primary impediments to achieving the expectations of constituents. “Even if we have the authority, we need the tax base and revenues,” he said. Geiselman added that caps on county property taxes also restrict the county’s revenues.


Further complicating this scenario is the relationship between the county and the state, Geiselman said. “Without increasing revenue at the state level for state transportation, they basically say they’re going to put all their eggs in the higher system of roadways, which are the interstate and state highways, and maintenance of what they’ve got. If we want FMs (farm-to-market roads) to improve or any other roads to improve to serve the traffic of the urban area they are expecting locals to pay for it…”


He says the state then puts the county in the position of having to pay for roads with property taxes and notes that his preference is to pay for transportation from the users and not through property tax. That relatively new responsibility to put an increasing financial burden on counties pits transportation funding against jails, courts and other aspects of county government.


Geiselman compares his planning philosophy to a green banana. “I like to be just behind the bleeding edge…. I like to be right before things are needed. I expect planning has an action behind it. We don’t do planning just to put documents on a shelf and I expect it to have a tie back to the business of government. It really is a guide to our actions, even if it takes 20 years to do that.”


He believes public works should have a return on investment within 12 years. “If you’re much beyond that, you’re putting money on the ground that doesn’t have a good public use,” Gieselman says. “I’m pleased when I see capital improvements like Dessau North that you build and 10 years later it’s filled with traffic.” Pointing out the county’s acquisition of the right-of-way, and building the road on schedule he says, “That to me was a good investment…because people used the infrastructure that we put out there.”


He cites the county’s response to the Hamilton Pool disaster as another example of his department making him proud. “When there was an event there, even (one) caused in Hays County, we were on top of it. It was actually my parks folks who were the first to see what was going on and knew intuitively how it would affect not only Hamilton Creek but Hamilton Pool.” He said their action set in motion what would become “a very successful environmental enforcement,” involving the state, Hays County and the Travis County Attorney’s office. “That’s rewarding when I see us working as a team together to solve a real problem,” Gieselman says.


In the coming decades he believes the continued population growth will remain a challenge. He also said finances will remain a growing issue. “My major concern is the tax base seems to be migrating to Hays and Williamson County while the demand may continue to go up and our ability to pay for it won’t increase at the same rate.”


More immediate challenges will include adopting the county’s first comprehensive plan, which Gieselman said, “will take up a good bit of my time in the next two years.” He says staying actively engaged in the legislative session in January is another near-term priority along with “ongoing issues in regard to water quality and supply that will challenge our public policy.”


Gieselman says the financial worries will also dominate, “not this year but the year after.” He points out that downturn in development lags behind an actual downturn in the economy, and the county doesn’t see reduction in revenue until after it happens. “The fact that there’s no building going on right now is reflected in the tax base, next year and the year afterward.” He says the county will be “fiscally strained more than ever in the next two years even if the economy does come out of it.”


He’s encouraged by the strengthening of the county-city relationship. “At the staff level we work really well together and I’m beginning to see more and more communication between the elected officials.” Saying the toughest days are behind him, Gieselman concludes, “I really applaud the professionalism of the county; we’ve come a long way in the time I’ve been here.”

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