Eckhardt delivers state of the county speech
Thursday, March 10, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
More than 100 people gathered at a Northeast Austin hotel on Wednesday night to hear Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt declare that the state of the county is strong.
Eckhardt established her case for that assessment in a punchy, pithy and often unsparingly earnest speech presented by the Austin Area League of Women Voters.
The first female county judge opened by praising the region’s soaring economy, which she boasted is the envy of the nation. However, she added that the rapid growth and change spurred on by the good times are not without their downside.
“We are experiencing a growing anxiety that the prosperity in our community is not for everyone,” Eckhardt said. “That is our challenge in local government.”
She used the vast majority of her speech to outline a cornucopia of accomplishments met and challenges ahead across a broad swath of categories, including affordability, the civil courthouse and transportation.
Many points echoed themes from a press conference Eckhardt delivered in the Commissioners Court chamber in January.
On taxes, Eckhardt said the court continues to look for ways to mitigate the regressive nature of property taxes, which she said “disproportionately impact low-income owners and renters.”
She also highlighted her commitment to programs that increase efficiency in the services the county provides. “It’s not enough anymore that a program feels good,” Eckhardt proclaimed. “It has to do good.”
The judge also addressed the need for more courthouse capacity, especially in light of last year’s defeat of the $287 million Civil & Family Courts Complex bond. She told the audience that planners are back at the drawing board and ready to meet with a brand-new citizens committee to analyze new sites and proposals for a facility to replace the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. She emphasized that there are no specific sites in mind, an acknowledgment that planners are looking beyond the downtown property at 300 Guadalupe St., which would have been home to the new complex had voters approved the money for it.
Eckhardt won applause when she reminded the audience that in-person visitations will return to the Travis County Correctional Complex later this year. That change came about when, as Eckhardt put it, the Commissioners Court “demanded it” of Sheriff Greg Hamilton, under whose administration video visitations had replaced face-to-face meetings between inmates and their families. Eckhardt hailed that turn of events as “historic.”
“Because up to that moment,” she explained, “sheriffs across the state … had taken the position that the commissioners courts have no business in how they run their jails. We’re just to write the check. We changed that in that vote.”
That comment could have been perhaps seen as a challenge to at least one person in Wednesday night’s audience. However, afterward, Sally Hernandez, the Democratic nominee to replace the retiring Hamilton, told the Austin Monitor that she did not take it that way.
“We share common community values, and I anticipate having a very close working relationship with the county judge and the county commissioners,” Hernandez said.
Eckhardt also repeated her calls to challenge the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to be more than just an agency that builds toll roads. While she conceded that it is likely too late to stop the construction of State Highway 45 Southwest, Eckhardt said she remains committed to ensuring that CTRMA accept some agreement to take financial responsibility if the project damages the fragile ecosystem over which it will stretch.
Eckhardt ended her speech with a general call for more transparency, affordability and equality in the region.
“Like the mighty post oak in my backyard that just busted out with buds this week, we are flourishing in Central Texas,” she said. “Let’s plant the seeds today so that every Travis County resident can flourish here tomorrow and in the future.”
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