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Gómez acknowledges challenges ahead, says county is equipped to handle them

Monday, January 14, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Looking back on 2018 and at the year ahead, Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez says she is feeling pretty good.

The past year brought some frustrations for the commissioner with the time-consuming necessity of briefing new county employees and residents on processes that have been in the works for years or even decades. The recent focus on the county jail and the women’s facility, for example, has largely been a rehashing of discussions from previous years, Gómez told the Austin Monitor during an interview Monday afternoon.

“When new people come on the court and new people come into the community, they haven’t been party to the discussions that we’ve had in the past and so they start raising questions,” said Gómez. “But I think we’re at the point now where we’re all caught up with why we said there was a need for a women’s building.”

Nonetheless, Gómez said the year has been quite productive for criminal justice. She praised the success of the Sobering Center in diverting intoxicated individuals from jail since opening its doors in late August 2018. She was equally enthusiastic about the de-emphasis on misdemeanor offenses like possession of small amounts of marijuana, saving money and keeping jail space for more serious offenses.

“The thing about these folks is they don’t get just a slap on the hand; there’s an opportunity to kind of say, wake up, don’t go down this path. I really like those diversion plans.”

The 86th Texas Legislature, now underway at the Capitol, poses a potential threat to the county’s plans for criminal justice improvements such as a new women’s facility, improved indigent defense or new jail diversion strategies. Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed limiting the county’s ability to increase its tax revenues beyond a 2.5 percent increase from year to year. Gómez, however, isn’t too worried. She said a revenue increase cap from the state would definitely have an impact on the county, but wouldn’t lead to an immediate disaster.

“It’s so much easier to know that we could go up to 8 percent if we had to, but we’ve never done that at the county. Even though all these years we’ve been able to go up to 8 percent over the effective tax rate, we’ve only gone to 3.5,” said Gómez.

Travis County has a variety of financial reserves, with the specific purpose of absorbing the impacts of economic downturns or potential revenue caps like that being proposed from the state. On top of that, the county has maintained the highest investment grade bond rating of AAA since 2001, allowing it to borrow money at interest rates much lower than the vast majority of Texas counties, making bond projects much cheaper for taxpayers. Despite the unprecedented number of projects in the works from the 2017 bond election, Gómez said the county is in pretty good shape.

“Our financial situation is so good; we have a AAA rating from the bond agencies because we’re very careful, I think, about our spending,” she said. “We don’t spend every single penny we get in our hands, and then on top of that we give some of it back to the taxpayers through homestead exemption – that’s in the millions.”

Still, the Texas Legislature is tossing around an idea that Gómez said could be a serious threat to the county’s ability to continue its work. According to her, there is talk at the Capitol of taking away the county’s right to use Certificates of Obligation to implement projects without voter-approved bonds, a right authorized by Texas’ Certificate of Obligation Act of 1971. She pointed to the proposed civil and family courts facility as an example of a much-needed project that could be jeopardized.

“That’s going to put more pressure on us,” Gómez said. “What if we need a new jail and we put it on the ballot and they say no? We still have to do it.”

Just over 50 percent of Travis County voters rejected a 2015 proposal for a new civil and family courts complex, but the dilapidated state of the nearly 90-year-old courthouse has led the county to pursue a new civil and family courthouse through the use of COs, which have not yet been attained for the facility.

“The way it works with county government, it’s a mandate that we have to provide space to our elected officials so they can do their jobs,” she said. “And if we put it on the ballot and people turn it down, we still have to find a way to do it, and so therein comes the real pressure.”

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