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Gómez brings seniority, optimism into 2017

Friday, January 6, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Affordability, public safety, annexation and the Trump administration are at the top of Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez’s mind as she starts the second half of her latest term in office.

Gómez is the longest-serving member of the Commissioners Court, having represented southeast Travis County’s Precinct 4 since 1995.

In that time, Gómez has seen the steady growth of Austin and its sprawling frontier, a determined rise in the cost of living and a series of deadly floods. Now she also faces a potentially radical shift in immigration policy on the federal level that could inordinately affect her largely Hispanic precinct. During his 2016 campaign, President-elect Donald Trump vowed to deport millions of undocumented workers.

“I’m going to try real hard to remain calm and steady, because I think Trump is going to find out some realities,” she told the Austin Monitor in a recent interview. “And I hope he listens, because there are some economic issues that will affect this country if you start deporting people.”

As for economic issues on the local level, Gómez expressed regret that the court was unable to lower the effective tax rate last year despite slightly lowering the actual tax rate. However, she said she was glad to see that the homestead exemption for senior and disabled residents was once again raised, this time to $80,000. Gómez called that “a great vote for me to take.”

At the time, county staff estimated that the new exemption level would create an $800,000 hole in the 2017 budget, a concern that Gómez told the Monitor is worth it.

“We do without that money. I think it’s an investment in our families who have been here a long, long time supporting government. I think we need to support them now,” she said.

She extended that concern for current residents to her stance on leveraging public improvement districts to encourage developers to build affordable housing in new subdivisions. The court recently adopted a PID policy that does not include any requirements on what types of public improvements a developer must add to any project.

“People can build all kinds of subdivision and PIDs and attract people from other parts of the country, but that doesn’t help the people who are already here and looking for affordable housing,” she said. Gómez insisted that PID developers consider adding permanently affordable housing units to their projects if they hope to obtain county-backed public financing.

She also said she would prefer that city of Austin curb its appetite for annexation. Residents, she said, have told her that they chose to move outside city limits to enjoy the country life. She also noted that those residents don’t have to pay city taxes, which she conceded was a trade-off for receiving limited public services.

However, one public service that Gómez would like to see extended throughout her precinct is public transit. She said she will continue to work for an expansion of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bus lines with the support of park-and-ride installations.

Gómez also said she hopes that flood mitigation will be on the bond referendum that is being planned for county residents’ ballots this November. Though initial signs indicate the proposal could focus primarily on transportation, there are allowances for added safety projects, including those that would shore up areas that have borne the brunt of recent deadly floods.

“We’re talking about homes and we’re talking about families and lives,” Gómez explained. “And we have lost some lives, unfortunately, and we don’t want to do that anymore.”

Surveying the challenges ahead, she concluded, “We’re all in it together, and we’ve got to work together.”

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