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Eckhardt’s watchword for 2018: Teamwork

Friday, January 5, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Christmas came early for Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt when, on Dec. 11, no one from either of the two major parties stepped up to challenge her for her seat.

That means Eckhardt will skate to a second term without the distractions of fighting to retain the Democratic nomination in March and fending off a Republican opponent next November.

“I’m super grateful that I don’t have an opponent because it means I have five more years and I get to work right now. So (2018) is kind of like a bonus year,” Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor in a recent one-on-one interview. “I can bend all of my energies to what’s currently in the pipeline and what needs to come next, and I can start now instead of starting in January of 2019.”

That’s not to say that Eckhardt will be resting on her laurels and letting her political apparatus atrophy. She said she will still hit the campaign trail, albeit with a noticeably different strategy.

“I will be campaigning, but it’s going to be campaigning for the five years of to-dos rather than for my candidacy,” she said. “Which is nice.”

That forward-looking agenda contains several big-picture ambitions such as securing large investments for public transit, expanding affordable housing options and bringing progressive reforms to the criminal justice system. She hopes to accomplish these goals while also holding the line against state Republicans who spent much of 2017 placing cities and urban counties in their crosshairs.

“I think that we did weather that well. We found ways to continue funding valuable programs that deliver real services to real people, and we did so without completely burning a bridge,” Eckhardt recounted. “That’s not to say I am not angry. But I’m staying in the relationship.”

She said she will still continue to hold state leaders accountable, but added, “I don’t want to isolate us further with rhetoric.”

State partnership will be key in a number of initiatives, not least of which is the ongoing cleanup of the Austin Police Department DNA lab implosion. County officials spent 2017 in weekly meetings with state and city leaders, the Capital Area Private Defender Service and other stakeholders to work out a path forward.

“I do believe that an independent DNA lab is a likely result of that analysis,” Eckhardt predicted. “I believe that an improved APD lab with DPS involvement in the interim is a very, very good interim solution.”

The county judge’s focus on cooperation won’t just be limited to the state, of course. For affordable housing, she wants the county to develop stronger lines of communication between the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and private nonprofit housing developers.

“Through partnerships with all of these folks as well as the private for-profits, I think that we can get the units that we need. But we’ve got to stop with the competing and the turfing,” she said, an apparent reference to a hiccup that set back the county’s planned construction of a mixed-use affordable housing and office project at its North Campus property on Airport Boulevard. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ decision to not submit a letter of reference blocked a key financing mechanism to get that project off the ground.

That minor setback wasn’t the whole story of Travis County’s real estate dealings in 2017 though. Over the summer, Eckhardt announced a deal that gave private developers a 99-year ground lease on the county’s property at 308 Guadalupe St., the site that was once eyed as a new location for a civil and family courthouse. The county is zeroing in on a new site for that purpose and Eckhardt teased that big news could be announced as early as January.

She also suggested that county voters might be spared another bond referendum to fund the new courthouse.

“A property probably would not want the uncertainty of a bond. They’d want us to commit now. So we would most likely be in some version of a partnership with a private landowner who is willing to put his or her property up for this civic use, and they will ask for some financial certainty,” she explained.

While the specific funding plans remain unclear, she insisted that revenues from the 308 Guadalupe St. ground lease will be used to advance the new courthouse project.

Eckhardt also has other creative funding ideas for other initiatives up her sleeve. She said she will continue negotiations with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to dedicate toll revenues to transit projects that would expand beyond the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s service area, particularly along two corridors that could feature future rail operations.

“Keep your eye on the Green Line and the MoKan Line in Northeast Travis County and movement by the county toward assisting in the funding of that,” she said.

With two of Travis County’s three seats on the CTRMA board of directors up for grabs in the coming weeks, Eckhardt predicted that it is “probable” there will be some turnover.

“It’s a steep learning curve on that board and I think that we should always be looking to farm additional future board members,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Travis County.

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