Eckhardt teases slight tax hike
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt warned on Monday that this year’s budget planning effort could result in a slightly higher tax rate.
Eckhardt made the revelation during a special press conference in downtown Austin. The quarterly update on county business was the second of its kind this year.
“We anticipate that there will be some cost drivers this year that will not make it possible for us to reduce the average tax burden for homeowners this year as we did the last two years,” Eckhardt said. She identified those cost drivers as health and human services and emergency medical services partnerships with the city of Austin, as well as increased costs borne by the criminal justice system related to indigent defense and compliance with the Michael Morton Act.
“I promise you that we can keep it under 4 percent, as we have for most of the last 10 years,” Eckhardt said of the potential tax hike. “I’m a social liberal, but I consider myself a fiscal conservative, so I make that promise to you and I will stick to it.”
Eckhardt provided a vista to other important county issues, including the renewed quest for new civil courthouse capacity, the ongoing regional standoff over transportation policy and the county’s growing population of immigrant residents.
On the matter of court capacity, Eckhardt said that planners have hit the reset button after November’s narrow defeat of $287 million in bonds to build a replacement for the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse at 300 Guadalupe St.
She explained that staff members have “sifted the must-haves from the want-to-haves.” When asked to elaborate, Eckhardt said, “Probably the biggest issue is collegial courtrooms. We could probably reduce (the) square footage necessary if we went to collegial courtrooms, but that is a hotly debated topic among the judges.”
Eckhardt also said she would continue to pressure the Texas Department of Transportation “to address the very real environmental concerns inherent in” the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority’s projects over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, including what she called the “rightfully embattled” State Highway 45SW project. She also noted that she is continuing to work with regional transportation agencies to keep the dream of the Lone Star Rail District alive.
In a step toward a less conventional county policy, Eckhardt also outlined the efforts being taken to “reduce anxiety and uncertainty in our foreign-born community.” She predicted that the short-staffed U.S. Supreme Court will likely deadlock on a decision this summer over a federal program that would allow certain undocumented immigrants to receive temporary exemption from deportation. The result of that, Eckhardt said, will leave everyone in “limbo on meaningful immigration reform.”
In the meantime, the county is conducting innovative outreach programs for immigrant families to answer questions and clear up confusion. Eckhardt also noted that the county has been engaged in a program to help potentially qualified immigrants gather the necessary paperwork to apply for the federal program should the Supreme Court uphold it.
Those efforts align with another initiative that Eckhardt previewed on Monday. She explained that she’s taking top county officials on the road to quarterly Travis County Community Fairs in order to increase awareness of the county and build connections with more residents. The first one is set for June 4 at Creedmoor Elementary School in Del Valle.
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