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Thursday, March 2, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard
State of the County speech features state drama, innovative bonding and a surprise setback
In the early months of her third year in office, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is still bullish on the state of Travis County.
On Wednesday evening, she told a large crowd gathered inside the Commissioners Court chambers that the county is “strong” and added, “There are many reasons to be optimistic about our future.”
Eckhardt’s annual State of the County speech briefly surveyed 2016’s accomplishments before assessing the challenges ahead in 2017, including the county’s clash with state government, the upcoming bond election and a surprising setback to a trailblazing affordable housing project.
After being introduced by former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Eckhardt began on a self-deprecating note. “They always say start with a joke, so I’ll tell you I had to drink a bunch of coffee to stay awake through my own speech,” she said between sips from a Wonder Woman mug.
She included among the list of last year’s achievements the court’s decision to raise the homestead exemption for seniors and disabled residents to $80,000, the acquisition of the old U.S. Courthouse to relieve pressure on the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, and the restoration of in-person visitations at the county jail. Eckhardt also touted the court’s record of lowering the county portion of taxpayers’ property bills for three consecutive years, something she said has not been achieved in 25 years.
Looking forward, Eckhardt also called for unity among her colleagues on the court as they pivot to tackle looming issues before them.
“Growth is straining our justice infrastructure, our roadway network and our housing supply,” she said. “In order to make the lives of Travis County residents better, we must put down the petty politics and divisions of the day and instead share the responsibility and prosperity in overcoming our challenges.”
Among those challenges are the “direct attacks on local control” coming from the 85th Texas Legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott. In addition to the effort to cut the rollback tax rate in half to 4 percent – something that would give the Commissioners Court very little wiggle room when it comes to drafting new budgets – Eckhardt also took aim at Abbott’s decision to yank back $1.5 million worth of grant money in response to Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new immigration enforcement policy.
Eckhardt’s voice trembled with emotion when she introduced her special guest, Army Sgt. Jhovanny Pinto, who after serving in the Iraq War came home and found himself in the county’s Veterans Court, one of the programs whose funding was revoked by the governor. Eckhardt credited his experience in the program with helping him go on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Texas State University.
The judge also addressed the collapse of the Austin Police Department’s DNA forensics lab, a potential catastrophe that could call into question thousands of trial results while simultaneously leaving the region without reliable means to test evidence in new trials. Eckhardt noted that the county is working with both the city and the state to address the widespread fallout.
“In my view, this process has already taken too long. Justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. “Although the cost for this review will be high, the human cost of wrongful convictions or failures to prosecute are higher still.”
As for the ongoing search for a long-term solution to the county’s capacity problem at the 85-year-old Sweatt Courthouse, the judge declined to disclose any details about recent votes the court has taken on both the downtown property that was to be home to a new civil courthouse as well as the four properties that could replace it. However, she pledged that, once the negotiations authorized by those votes are over, “Travis County residents will be very proud of the results.”
Switching to what she dryly dubbed the “scintillating topic of debt financing,” Eckhardt outlined the county’s new, nimbler bond strategy.
“We’re moving away from large and sporadic bond elections and toward a ‘just in time’ approach,” she explained. “The Commissioners Court has chosen a strategy of smaller, more frequent bond elections with up-to-date cost estimates on ready-to-go projects.”
To that end, she noted, the court recently appointed the members of the Citizens Bond Advisory Task Force that will pare down a $1 billion list of projects, identifying which ones deserve quicker financing through the annual budget process and which ones can wait for a bond program.
Eckhardt also spoke about “shared prosperity and community resilience” and the importance of local workforce development. And during her remarks about affordable housing, she caught several in the room off-guard with a stunning revelation about the county’s North Campus development project at 53 ½ Street and Airport Boulevard.
That mixed-use project would feature office space for county employees as well as 145 units for residents who earn 60 percent or below of the median family income. Eckhardt explained that the county “hit a roadblock just yesterday in the financing expectations that has a nearly $8 million cost consequence.”
Without revealing any details, Eckhardt continued: “This is a serious but temporary setback, and we will soldier on with this property and others we own that would make great urban affordable housing for Travis County families.”
In closing, the judge once again urged her audience, which included Mayor Steve Adler, City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan and Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant, for help in putting aside “the petty politics and divisions of the day.” She concluded, “I know the changes we are experiencing will bring out the best in us as we level our playing field, addressing inequity, putting opportunity within reach of every Travis County resident through affordable, efficient and fair government. Let’s make the investments today so that every Travis County resident can flourish here tomorrow and into the future.”
As the crowd shimmied out of the chambers to a catered reception in the foyer, two commissioners told the Austin Monitor that they approved of the judge’s speech. Commissioner Brigid Shea said, “I think we’re incredibly frugal and creative with limited resources, and I think that was part of the message Sarah conveyed tonight.”
Commissioner Jeff Travillion praised Eckhardt for the comprehensive vision in a year featuring deep uncertainties about state and federal policies.
“We can only handle the things that we can control,” Travillion said. “And I think she laid out a good road map for the things that are important to us and that we need to focus on.”
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