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Eckhardt wants to keep good things going in ‘13

Thursday, January 10, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

When asked, Precinct 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt ticked off what she says are accomplishments Travis County made in 2012: an historic economic development policy, increased homestead exemptions, new groundwater regulations and more.


Now, as she looks to the coming year, the commissioner said she wants to keep the momentum going by making strides in other areas, including increased cooperation with other governmental entities and establishing a countywide fire and rescue system.


Eckhardt, who sat down with In Fact Daily to review the past year and highlight priorities for 2013, said one of the county’s biggest accomplishments in 2012 was last month’s passage of an economic development policy that establishes a wage floor for all workers, including those contracted for construction and other building jobs. The wage floor – which establishes a livable wage of $11 an hour and was her amendment to the policy was a “very good thing,” Eckhardt said. 


Her upbeat assessment comes in spite of the fact that she generally voiced an unfavorable opinion of such incentives, but she said her vote for the new policy was an example of pragmatism.


“As a policymaker, I can be against a particular policy, but if I am on the minority side, I will not take my ball and go home,” said Eckhardt. “While I do not like most types of tax abatement for corporations, I know that we will do them. We will create a corporate entitlement.”


“So if we are going to do that – and we clearly are – lets make the bar good and high. Not high to the point of thwarting the will of the majority, but high to service the best in the will of the majority,” she said.


Also a good thing according to Eckhardt is an increase in the amount of the homestead exemptions for residents of the county who are over 65 or disabled. This was the first hike for the exemption since 1994, and Eckhardt looks forward to more in the future. She told In Fact Daily that the increase was a modest $5,000 this year, to $70,000, because the county didn’t want to have “a massive effect on the tax rate,” but she wants to work to raise it incrementally each year until, presumably, it accurately reflects the county’s rising home values.


Eckhardt believes property tax equity is becoming increasingly important as is cooperation among taxing units.


“We’ve got to get to a place where we can have a higher degree of collaboration on all of the taxing units,” she said, noting the lack of coordination between the county, city, school districts and the hospital district when it comes to considering rates and scheduled votes on property tax rates. “I’m not saying that we would dictate to each other what our tax rates would be, but it would be to everyone’s advantage for us to have upfront discussions in advance of our budget cycles so that we know what each others’ priorities are, to minimize duplication and maximize collaboration.


“All of us are trying to have the lowest tax rate with the highest levels of service. In order to do that, we have to be really honest with ourselves about who’s getting and who’s not getting under the tax code,” said Eckhardt. “We have a lot of unintended consequences of our taxing policies and we could do better at mitigating those unintended consequences.”



Eckhardt also singled out new groundwater regulations for future developments in the county as a good, sound policy.


“We’ve got to face the facts of our limited water supply,” she said. “The county has some tools to regulate the demand, and that’s what we utilized. But we’ve got to take a look at the supply, and figure out how the county can play a meaningful role in quantifying that supply and helping the whole community.”


Eckhardt said that this would absolutely involve redefining the role the county has played in the past.


“I think that county government can be that honest broker in the conversation about how much there is, how long it will last and under what circumstances,” said Eckhardt.


Eckhardt acknowledges that this will require a lot of bridge-building, as well as overcoming fears of top-down water regulation, which she calls “a smidge irrational,” given state laws that generally give property owners the rights to their groundwater. (However, she understands more rational concerns of badly executed policies that could create an uneven playing field.)


She also looks forward to continuing work with the Lower Colorado River Authority, which she says has seen the county more as a helpmate as the two agencies have cooperated on the county’s management of the vast Balcones Canyonlands Preserve and LCRA’s operations of the Highland Lakes, which are far below capacity because of a multi-year drought.


“We haven’t really waded in on LCRA matters. But we are more than we have in the past, and that’s very good,” said Eckhardt, “We’re getting better at communicating with each other about unintended consequences of each others’ actions.”


This is theme in Eckhardt’s view of the future, which is heavy on communication with other regional authorities – whether terms of collaboration in obtaining Federal 1115 waivers for medical care or developing regional transportation solutions.


For 2013, Eckhardt also singled out establishing a countywide fire and rescue emergency system. Eckhardt said unifying an “extremely fractured” fire and rescue emergency system was a priority. She explained that the current state of the system suffers because it is made up of 13 separate emergency service districts in addition to interlocal agreements. The net result of this hodgepodge: extremely uneven levels of service across the county. (Emergency service district funding is dependent on local home valuation, which makes meeting basic services for lower-income communities especially difficult.)


“It’s extremely important for us to fix this issue,” Eckhardt said.

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