Sunday, December 28, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Brigid Shea has big ideas for Commissioners Court

In November, Brigid Shea was elected to the Precinct 2 seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court. She sat down with the Monitor earlier this month to discuss her plans, and got right to the point.

“I intend to be very, very active,” said Shea.

Shea said that part of her decision to run for office was a desire to prepare the community for the climate change already taking place, and ready it for the greater extremes that are on the way.

“This region is hotter, drier, more flash-flood prone, more wildfire-prone, more tornado-prone, more everything-prone,” said Shea. “We have great pieces in place already, but we haven’t had anyone for whom this is a top priority. It is for me.”

Shea wants to create the best community preparedness program that will help citizens “get in front” of natural disasters. Her goal is to “go after a big pile of federal grant money and create the best community preparedness program in the nation.”

In general, Shea said that the issues she focused on in her campaign are those that she looks most forward to tackling when she takes office.

Her biggest priority is to address what she says is a broken property tax appraisal system. Though she does not think they need to sue the appraisal district, necessarily, she says that they need the data that would come from independent appraisals of commercial properties, and that information needs to be communicated to the appraisal district “so they wouldn’t be the captives of a completely screwed up and broken process that legally doesn’t allow them to get actual market sales information.”

“I have a big justice streak. I just feel like it’s wrong that commercial properties are not being appraised at their fair market value and therefore (property owners are) not paying their share of property taxes,” said Shea. “Property taxes are the major funding source for the majority of public services that are provided to our community. It’s a huge issue for me.”

“The amount of money that is left on the table is enormous. I don’t think that people fully understand,” said Shea. “The delta between what is appraised and actual market value just in Travis County, just this year, is $40 billion. Just in the commercial property category — that doesn’t even look at industrial, that doesn’t even look at multifamily. … That’s a huge amount of money.”

Shea plans to work with allies across the state to fix the problem. She said she is concerned about state leaders who have vowed to save Texans from high local taxes with appraisal caps or lowering of the rollback rate. That, she says, will “lock in the inequity” and guarantee that the owners of commercial properties will not have to pay their actual rate.

“If you lock in the inequity and strangle local governments, you won’t have money for roads or police or schools or parks or fire or libraries or pools,” said Shea. “That’s the choice.”

Shea addressed and then dismissed the notion that, as a county official, she may not have the power to change the process. “It’s hurting the majority of constituents. I’m not going to sit on my hands and say, ‘not my problem.’ I’m going to do everything that I can to try to fix it. And that’s my general view of issues and of the political process. I take an expansive view of it.”

Shea also feels passionately about water use, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows her background.

In addition to serving on the Austin City Council from 1993 to 1996, Shea co-founded the Save Our Springs Alliance, spent more than a decade working on the Austin Clean Water Program and has served on the boards of, consulted for and worked on various environmental causes, community groups and nonprofits during her time at the city.

“Our region is running out of water. We are in a crisis. Our leadership has not responded adequately to the problem. The majority of their plan seems to be hoping or praying for rain,” said Shea, whose plan is detailed even though the county doesn’t have specific jurisdiction over the city and other areas of the region.

“What I have is a public pulpit,” said Shea. “We are wasting vast amounts of water in government facilities and quasi-government facilities all over Austin and Central Texas.”

Shea got specific with the Monitor and explained several ways water use could be greatly reduced.

For example, the University of Texas at Austin still uses treated drinking water to air condition the campus and water its lawns. Though it converted one chilled water station to purple pipe (reclaimed wastewater) recently, Shea estimates the university could save more than 300 million gallons of water a year by changing the rest.

The state capitol complex, said Shea, has a similar amount of drinking water use for air conditioning and irrigation.

Finally, said Shea, the conversion of downtown chilled water loops from drinking water to purple pipe could save about 70 million gallons annually.

“There’s a huge amount of water we could save. And the city’s been a big impediment to it because they don’t make as much money off the sales of treated wastewater,” said Shea.

Shea has already started working with UT and legislators about the problem and plans to “make a big stink about it.”

She is also working with Highland Lakes interests and environmental leaders who are concerned that even with increased conservation, water will go to downstream rice farmers. They have established a set of principles, and she says they plan to push the issue at the state legislature, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Lower Colorado River Authority.

“I’m providing leadership on that and other people aren’t. It’s not that they are stupid or lazy, it’s just not been their priority and they don’t have the background that I have on this issue,” said Shea.

Finally, Shea hopes to bring some forward thinking in terms of transportation. She says that infrastructure and transportation planning hasn’t factored in the emergence of driverless cars, which will be on the market in the next five years and, said Shea, will completely transform the need for parking and wide roads with larger and larger capacities.

“It’s going to totally transform our transportation thinking, planning, all of it,” said Shea.

“It’s perplexing to me that, as smart as we are in technology and other arenas, that we are completely ignoring the most disruptive emerging technology since the horseless carriage,” said Shea. “I cannot find anyone who does transportation modeling that is factoring this in.”

Shea will be sworn into office Jan. 2 in a joint ceremony with County Judge-elect Sarah Eckhardt.

 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Lower Colorado River Authority: The quasi-governmental organization charged with, among other key items, regulating water policy for the Lower Colorado River--the body of water that runs through the heart of Austin. The creation of the organization in 1934--and the eventual series of dams it built--helped send electricity to portions of the Texas Hill Country.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality: environmental regulating authority for the State of Texas.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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