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No-layoff budget, bonds, groundwater plan highlight year for Travis County

Wednesday, January 4, 2012 by Michael Kanin

This week, In Fact Daily is running its annual Year in Review, examining the issues and events that shaped Austin politics in 2011. Through Friday, we present a series of articles examining those issues through the eyes of the people who shaped policy in 2011.

 

  

A funny thing happened on the way to 2012: the US Supreme Court hijacked Travis County politics.

 

But before the Justices got their hands on the State of Texas’ now-plenty-fouled redistricting (and by extension, election) process, the Travis County Commissioners’ Court managed to tackle a range of important issues. This included the passage of a FY2012 budget that featured no layoffs in the face of tough economic conditions, a successful $200-plus million bond initiative, and the continuation of the county’s AAA bond rating. Commissioners also took steps to put hard regulation on ground water in their jurisdiction.

 

It all came as the county weathered a cut-happy legislature, massive management turnover, and a divisive redistricting process (before the court cases). And as the court looked ahead to a year in which Commissioners Karen Huber and Ron Davis face reelection races, long-time County Judge Sam Biscoe announced he would retire in 2014.

 

In Fact Daily sat down to discuss it all in separate interviews with the members of the Commissioners’ Court.

 

The Austin Chronicle broke Biscoe’s news after he made an informal announcement at a retirement party for also-departing tax assessor/collector Nelda Wells Spears. Spears and Biscoe aren’t the only departing county higher-ups. This year saw the first months of new County Executive for Transportation and Natural Resources Steve Manilla who took over for his longtime predecessor, Joe Gieselman. Then the county’s manager for Planning and Budget, Rodney Rhoades left for another position in Dallas. Soon, Gieselman and Rhoades will be joined by IT executive Joe Harlow, Emergency Services executive Danny Hobby and Rhoades’ interim replacement Leroy Nellis.

 

Biscoe made lemonade. “(This) puts us in a real good position to hire a budget director and an assistant,” he said of Rhoades’ and Nellis’ departure. He then used Hobby’s departure to quickly pivot to address potential coming changes in county emergency service.

 

“For the first time, we are taking a real good look at one system,” he said. This, Biscoe argued, could be executed under an arrangement where the City of Austin operated a unified fire and EMS system in both its jurisdiction and the county’s.

 

As for 2011’s accomplishments, Biscoe lists the budget first. He tied it to the legislative session. “With the Lege in town, bad things could have happened,” he said. 

 

His colleagues echoed the sentiment. “It wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt. “I think we were fairly successful at telling the story that ‘you cut this and you only have to pay for it later and it will be a lot more expensive then.’”

 

Pct. 1’s Ron Davis cited the court’s finding of funding for its veterans’ court, homeless initiatives, and to address jail issues. “We’re trying to work with our budget to make a lot of good things happen,” he said.

 

“It was going to be a tough year, we had to be real careful,” Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez said. “(County staff) came through.”

 

Each of the commissioners’ also highlighted their 2011 bond election. There, by as Davis put it, “a phenomenal” margin, Travis County voters approved roughly $132 million for infrastructure and over $80 million for parks expenses. This included money for the widening of Cameron Road, bike and pedestrian paths for that stretch and others, as well as funds for conservation easements – a newly allowed county power that will bring threatened extents of wildland under county control.

 

“(It) was extremely successful,” said Gomez. She gave credit to the advisory committee the county charged with vetting potential bond projects. “(People) were very pleased with the folks who were appointed and the work that they did,” she added.

 

“(It) was a stunning success,” agreed Eckhardt. “It really showed…that the electorate trusts that we are on the right path, that we are frugal, that we come up with a good plan, stick to it, and get the biggest bang for the buck.”

 

Huber, who represents Pct. 3, singled out an open space acquisition in the Reimers Ranch area. “It is a huge accomplishment,” she said. “If we hadn’t been able to acquire that piece of property now…there was an extremely high risk that we wouldn’t have been able to buy it.”

 

Huber called the property a “critical piece to our parks system. It protects Hamilton Pool,” she said.

 

“There were a lot of projects in there,” said Biscoe, who then turned to the length of the resulting program. “Over seven years, I think we’ll need all of them.”

 

It was all made possible, argued Gomez, by the county’s continued high bond rating. “That’s where the triple-a fits in,” she said. “When the voters approve those projects we can borrow money very, very inexpensively.”

 

The court also took steps to curtail development that depends on regional groundwater for its existence. This process had started with a moratorium in fall 2010 that temporarily banned any platting of projects that rely on water from the Trinity Aquifer.

 

It extended into 2011 as the court begin work on a more permanent set of solutions. That process drew its fair share of controversy as a committee met to discuss the groundwater in the county against the backdrop of one of the worst droughts in Texas history. Residents of the western portions of the county also flocked to a heated public hearing on the subject. The battle was also joined by State Rep. Paul Workman (R-Austin) who continued, despite skepticism from the court and in spite of recent history, to insist that he’d be able to push a groundwater district through the Texas Legislature in 2013.

 

Still, the court intends to have a sweeping set of regulations about groundwater use by early 2012. Huber, who aims to make water a key issue in her reelection effort, also spearheaded an attempt to quantify Lake Travis’ economic worth to the region.

 

“The real purpose of that study is to provide a baseline tool for the policy makers to use,” she said. “That’s not something that the public can get all jumping-up-and-down excited about, but it was very meaningful…No doubt in my mind that that is one of the biggest things this office has accomplished.”

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