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Wednesday, September 23, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Jail visitation dominates county budget hearing

Travis County Commissioners Court held its first of three public hearings on the proposed tax rate for the next fiscal year on Tuesday evening, but instead of anxious property owners venting about affordability concerns, a determined group of inmates’ rights advocates dominated the proceedings.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt gavelled in the special meeting at 6 p.m. and gave the floor to Planning and Budget Office County Executive Jessica Rio, who briefly summed up the months of work that produced the proposed tax rate of 41.69 cents per $100 of valuation, nearly 4 cents lower than last year’s rate.

“We were really – because of the affordability discussions that have been ongoing for the last couple of years – looking at the cost drivers and having the cost drivers really drive where we would land on the tax rate, which meant a very constrained budget this upcoming fiscal year,” Rio said.

Her remarks were essentially the end of tax talk at the hearing. After her presentation, the first of a series of activists organized by Austin-based prison reform group Grassroots Leadership approached the dais and called for the return of in-person visitation at Travis County jails. Under the current policy instituted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates are able to visit with friends and family only through a video-chat interface.

Several of the speakers, including Doug Smith of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, gave emotional testimony that reflected their personal experiences as inmates or family of inmates.

“Addiction is devastating. Mental illness is devastating to families,” Smith explained after telling the commissioners that he spent time behind bars. “They can’t do anything to help their loved ones unless they can get in front of them. And seeing them on a video screen is not the same thing.”

Whether Smith’s or his colleagues’ testimony was relevant to a public hearing about taxes remained an open question until Commissioner Gerald Daugherty finally raised it after the fourth speaker.

“Is there not a better format for doing this than this way?” Daugherty asked Eckhardt.

Eckhardt told Daugherty that the Commissioners Court can urge the Sheriff’s Office to reverse its policy and reintroduce face-to-face visitations. If Hamilton agrees to the request, she went on, then the commissioners could help fund it by raising the proposed tax rate. “So in that respect, this testimony is germane to the tax rate,” Eckhardt concluded.

A slightly incredulous Daugherty followed up with another question: “So you’re saying we would consider changing the tax rate.” With just two weeks left before the scheduled adoption of the budget, this seemed a not unreasonable query.

But Eckhardt said, “There can be no other rationale for a public hearing on the tax rate if it can’t be changed. There would be no purpose in having this hearing.”

“I think we’re fixing to open a big can of worms,” Daugherty replied with a chuckle.

County staff pointed out that per state law, if the commissioners proposed a new tax rate, they would have to schedule brand-new tax rate hearings in addition to the remaining two that were set and advertised under the current proposed rate.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen. Until then, the next public hearing is scheduled for this Friday at 9 a.m.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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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