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Eckhardt welcomes wave of political momentum in Travis County

Friday, January 4, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

For years, when County Judge Sarah Eckhardt would try to talk to the community about the justice system, someone would quickly change the subject to transportation or other unrelated issues. Although it accounts for 50 percent of the overall county budget, Eckhardt said only recently are people beginning to see the relevance of the justice system to their lives.

“Looking back over the last year, I am very gratified that there has been a lot of attention paid to both the criminal and the civil justice systems. That’s not to say we haven’t been concentrating on it, literally, for decades. We did a lot of our criminal justice reform efforts in the absence of political will, just because we knew it was the right thing to do. Now that we have political will we can push it even further.”

Justice, Eckhardt said, is a four-legged table comprising prosecution, defense, judiciary and law enforcement. Travis County is currently re-examining each of those legs in an effort to reduce costs and maximize efficiency. Eckhardt is confident that 2019 will bring a merging of misdemeanor and felony jurisdiction and thinks the county will move forward to work in conjunction with Capital Area Private Defender Service to improve indigent defense. She is also proud of a publicly accessible dashboard at Travis County’s website used to track overall justice efficiency.

At the level of law enforcement, she added, there is still room for improvement. But with the Austin Police Department contributing 80 percent of total bookings, the county’s reach is limited. “We need to have a meaningful discussion with law enforcement about what other options they need and what options are already available.”

The county is also discussing a new women’s facility at the correctional complex in Del Valle, which Eckhardt says was built based on an outdated model of punishment.

“I’m very hopeful that we build the women’s facility because I think it will be a bellwether for how we build facilities in general. It will be an environment where you could feel supported and build trust in the people who are attempting to assist you in never coming back there.”

In September, Central Health came up with a plan to rescue Sendero Health Plans by raising its average risk score and gaining access to more local tax dollars. According to Central Health, 228 high-health-need customers have already been added to Sendero’s new premium assistance program but financial results remain to be seen.

“I think we just kicked a hard choice down the road; I would love to be pleasantly surprised but I think the probability is low,” Eckhardt said. “The idea of Sendero was a great one, but it predates Obamacare and it also predates the state’s decision not to take Medicaid. It was a business model that would have worked for another time.”

Transportation has also been on Eckhardt’s mind. She compared solving Austin’s transportation problems to planting an oak tree that will provide shade in the future. She noted that questions of technology and engineering should not stop us from pushing forward.

“There is so much technology that has occurred just in the space of the last 10 years that if our community persists in saying, ‘I’m not going to vote for something until I know exactly what we’re paying for and how much it’s going to cost and where it’s going to go,’ then we will not get anything done. We have to invest in the concept and take a bit of a leap of faith here.”

In the meantime, Eckhardt is interested in how the county can incentivize transit use. For example, the county is building affordable housing units on a vacant lot at Airport Boulevard and 53rd Street that county staff has been using as overflow parking. The county will compensate with shuttle service from a nearby parking lot, but Eckhardt also hopes employees will use the opportunity to take advantage of their free transit passes.

This year has also been a success for the workforce development program, a collaborative effort led by Workforce Solutions that also involves Travis County and the city of Austin. Eckhardt says the program’s next big step is to land well-paying jobs for 10,000 individuals by 2021.

“I’m very happy to say that Ray Marshall Center over at UT independently verifies that what we’re doing really works. They’ve also verified for us that our capacity is way too small, that if we were to scale it, we would continue to get the same results just for more people.”

The upcoming 86th Texas Legislature has Eckhardt concerned about affordable housing and indigent defense, neither of which receive state dollars.

“Counties are nothing but the withered right arm of the state government; if they cut us off, they will be able to do even less for the people of the state of Texas, because right now, whatever gets done for the people of the state of Texas is being done by the counties and the municipalities within them.”

Looking into the future, Eckhardt painted a picture of a pedestrian and cycling paradise that is already unfolding across Travis County.

“Over the course of the next decade, you’re going to see a connected trail system emerge that is going to be like no other in a major metropolitan area in Texas. We will stop having conversations about sidewalks and bicycle lanes on the roadway network because we will have such a fabulous trail system that people will be walking and riding their bikes on a system that is just for them, not an afterthought of whatever we build for cars. In the future, you will be able to ride or walk 26 miles end to end, from the headwaters of the Gilleland down to the Colorado River and then down Onion Creek. It will be spectacular.”

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