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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Ex-Travis County auditor urges more study before creating new courts
Wednesday, October 24, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
Just two months after she was fired as Travis County’s auditor, Susan Spataro made her return to the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
This time, Spataro appeared as a taxpayer and resident in opposition to a request by district judges to ask the Texas Legislature to create two new criminal courts in Travis County.
“I’m here today as a citizen, but I’m also here with very extensive knowledge of the county’s finances and how things work,” said Spataro, who was fired by district judges after 24 years as county auditor. “The district judges, as you know, made it very clear that they did not want me working with you … on this issue.”
District judges are seeking one district court and one county court at law, both of which would be general jurisdiction. District Judge Julie Kocurek explained that additional courts were badly needed to deal with a backlog of cases. As of Aug. 31, there were 13,840 pending district court cases and 44,197 pending county court at law cases.
Kocurek said that an analysis showed that they needed five new courts. “For me to sit back and not do anything would be reckless and irresponsible,” she said. “And I do not ever want to look back on my term as presiding judge and feel that way about my actions.” Currently, the county has seven district courts, which preside over felony and official misconduct misdemeanor cases, and six courts at law, which hear criminal misdemeanor cases.
Commissioner Margaret Gomez, who pulled the item from the consent agenda, said that she was “very appreciative” that the judges had pulled back on the number of courts they requested.
The annual estimated costs of the new courts was about $2.4 million for the district court plus one-time costs of $361,119, and about $2.5 million for the county court at law, plus one-time costs of $355,000. The state pays most of the judges’ salaries with the county paying a supplement. However, the county pays the salaries of other court employees and operating costs. District judges typically have a court coordinator, a bailiff, a court reporter and one or two court clerks. County courts at law typically have three or four employees.
Spataro warned that the looming threat of revenue caps by the state Legislature and a lack of information about the overall effect such caps would have on the budget amounted to an incomplete request by the county at this time. Revenue caps are a threat that hangs over county government whenever the Legislature meets.
“I don’t think you have the analysis that allows you to look at the county as a whole if caps come on, and I think that it would be foolish not to do that,” said Spataro.
“I would not commit to going to them to ask for two more courts until I knew what the Legislature was doing and had a fairly good idea what expenditures I was going to have,” Spataro told In Fact Daily. “I just think they need to do some ‘what ifs.’ And that’s what I did when I went to the Legislature. … You heard them say that I did a really good job. I did. Because I spent the time to do that. I mean, get in there and not just talk and say ‘we need these things.’ They don’t care about that. (State Sen.) Tommy Williams will eat your lunch with that kind of testimony. He will. You have to come up there with some real numbers.”
Spataro suggested that the budget office project the impact of revenue caps before asking for anything from the Legislature, which will convene in January.
The Commissioners Court voted unanimously to postpone the vote for three weeks to allow for the Planning and Budget Office to compile a rough five-year plan, in the hopes of presenting a more comprehensive picture of the budget and what it might look like if limited by the state Legislature.
Gomez said she was “on board” with a five-year financial plan.
“My concern was a really uneasy feeling about the financial stability of Travis County,” said Gomez. “I kind of had the feeling like we were getting ahead of ourselves by submitting legislative needs now before we even get started with trying to find someone to handle the financial issues at the Legislature.”
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe pointed out that while the court expenditure may be a small one in the grand scheme of things, a look at the numbers would be a good idea.
“It’s not like this is new or different. We go through this every time the Legislature is about to come to town. And there is no way for us to control what they do,” said Biscoe. “We are always in a precarious position, same as the other urban counties.”
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