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Travis Commissioners had a busy 2010, look forward to 2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Interaction with Texas county government is more often than not a frustrating lesson in the limits of power. “Obviously it’s frustrating to not have land use authority—nor any ordinance making authority,” says Precinct 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez. “So when people call us and they complain about noise that keeps them up late at night, or wakes them up—disturbing the peace—we kind of have to say, ‘I know what you’re feeling, I hear you, but we just don’t have any ordinance making power.”


Still, in 2010 the Travis County Commissioners Court did manage to get something done. More, in fact, than many might think. From a plan that relocates the county’s offices to 13 buildings in and around downtown Austin over the next few decades, to ongoing struggles with their land use authority, to a budget cycle that saw a salary bump for county employees, the court had a busy year. And with more regional growth and dramatic state level budget cuts looming, it only stands to get busier.


For County Judge Sam Biscoe, six major issues dominated the court’s 2010. He named the county’s budget process, which concluded without any layoffs, first. “I thought we did a pretty good job of sustaining reserves, and that’s important for the bond rating, as well as our ability to deal with unexpected developments,” he said.


Biscoe noted that the court’s fiscal responsibility included a 2.5 percent pay increase for county employees which came with an increase in their insurance coverage.


He next cited two large land purchases. This year the county acted to buy both an office building at 700 Lavaca Street and, more recently, a block of land along Republic Square. Each of these properties will play a role in the county’s long-term central campus project.


For Biscoe, the plan’s creation was itself an important moment for the court. “We put it off, I think, as long as we could,” he said. “I don’t know if I see downtown property getting any cheaper.”


The clean-up of Hamilton Pool is also on Biscoe’s list. There, the court managed to recover $2.1 million of a $3.5 million settlement. Those funds will be used to rehabilitate the area, which was damaged when sediment leeched off of a construction site and into Hamilton Creek.


Joe Gieselman rounded out Biscoe’s year. In August, the long-time Executive Manager of the County’s Transportation and Natural Resources division abruptly announced (during citizen’s communication, no less) that he would retire in 2011. That brought on a search for his replacement that ended in early December when the county selected Gieselman’s veteran deputy, Steve Manilla for the job.


Biscoe also talked about the difficult hearings that surrounded Texas Industries’ request for a permit for a gravel mine that will be constructed in a Hornsby Bend neighborhood. Though the company eventually received the permit, it was over the strident objections of its residential neighbors.


He said that, in the next year, the court would be thinking about the potential reclamation of Texas Industries’ mining sites. “If you see a certain problem for residents…and the acquisition of open space may help you address that problem,” he said, “then it seems to me we ought to feel duty bound to do that.”


Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis played a key role in the Texas Industries debates. When the court voted to approve the mining permit in January, Davis voted against it—despite the fact that the court had no authority to hold up the document. “Some day the voice of the people is going to be heard,” he said at the time. “I hope it’s during my terms.”


Then, in August, he pressed Gieselman about the company’s reclamation efforts. “I’d like to see a track record of somewhere where this has been done already, if it has been done by TXI,” he said.


Davis has long been an advocate for environmental concerns in his precinct.


He told In Fact Daily that his focus has been, and will continue to be, on his constituents. Still, he said that the court had “made some major, major accomplishments” for the county as a whole.


In a brief discussion, he also brought up the firing of former county Administrative Operations Executive Manager Alicia Perez. When the county moved to re-organize itself this fall, it did so at the expense of Perez’s former position. Davis is against that idea.


“I’m not in favor of any reorganization at all,” he said at the time. “I think… it ain’t broke so don’t fix it.”


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt picked out recent court deliberations about the way public mental health services function in the county. “We are the largest mental health facility in the region,” she said.


Eckhardt told In Fact Daily that the county was working on getting “an even higher degree of partnership” between the county, Travis County Integral Care, and the county jail. “(There is) a really, really necessary and very profitable conversation going on about that right now,” she said. “In the past—in the fairly distant past, at this point—corrections in Travis County was not at all warm to the idea that they were the largest mental health facility in the region. It was not considered a job appropriate for the jail.


“I still don’t think it’s a job appropriate for the jail,” she continued, “but the fact is, we are the largest mental health provider in the region and so rather than reject what is the fact because it’s not optimal, we’re embracing the fact despite it not being optimal.”


She also echoed Biscoe’s comments on Gieselman’s retirement. “The transition…(is) at a time where there are a lot of questions, and a lot of opportunity, quite frankly, around growth in Travis County,” she said.


Eckhardt then singled out high points in cooperation between the county and the City of Austin. She called the partnership between the two entities “really good” when it came to their efforts on the emerging development plan for the so-dubbed Colorado River Corridor in an unincorporated region of the southeast portion of the county.


Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber has the shortest tenure of any of the court members. She said that, in the roughly two years she spent on the court, she’s “found herself very, very involved internally in ways that don’t meet the eye of the public.”


She mentioned this year’s reorganization. “When we have changes like we have in senior leadership that causes us then to look at ways this particular part of our structure could have worked better…that’s one of the reasons that we didn’t rush in and hire for the senior-level position.”


She said that, ultimately, the move would be very good for Travis taxpayers.


Huber, who has a background in real estate, also singled out the county’s purchase of the 700 Lavaca Street building. There, as the only member of the court with relevant experience, she says she played a key role.


She moved on to water issues. In mid-October, Huber brought a resolution to the court which called for a moratorium on development that relies on groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer. It passed unanimously.


The moratorium is set to last a year, though it could be extended. Huber sees flaws in the current rules that govern the creation of groundwater conservation districts. Those are the preferred method of regulation of such issues.


“It would be great if we could get a groundwater district that functions well and everybody’s comfortable with the structure of it and the financing profile,” she said. “But I’m not going to wait around for it.”


Gomez missed a large chunk of the court’s year recovering from open-heart surgery she had in April. Though she’s been a part-timer at the court as she works herself back to full strength, she offered comments on this year’s proceedings.


She talked about the limits of the county’s power in regard to Texas Industries’ contract. “Constituents don’t understand it,” she said. “They kept coming and saying…’you have the power, you can do this and you can do that.’…We looked to the county attorney and (asked), ‘is this really true? Where does it say we can do this?’”


In the end they would respond to what must be a familiar refrain to Gomez and her colleagues: “You know that you can’t do this.”


“The thing is…I’ve been with the county since 1973,” Gomez continued. “I worked for a commissioner as his assistant for seven years. I heard all of the conversations then about how they needed land use authority. They always went over to the legislature to talk to them and they always ran into the same situation we run into today.


“Hope springs eternal until the time when you say, ‘its time for me to face reality,’” she added. “So we have to look for other ways to deal with issues.”

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