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Eckhardt delivers State of the County address

Thursday, March 7, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Like the Wonder Woman mug of tea sitting on the podium before her, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt says Travis County is filled to the brim.

With an unprecedented number of infrastructure projects in line for construction, a contentious array of criminal justice reforms on the horizon, a quickly unraveling climate crisis, and an aggressively spartan environment at the Texas Legislature, Eckhardt admitted the difficulty of preparing her speech during Wednesday afternoon’s State of the County address.

She praised the county for braving its challenges and for being a refuge of decency and respect in the midst of a broader cultural collapse of productive communication. “Our world is divided, our country is divided, our state is divided, but Travis County is not divided,” she said.

That’s not to say there isn’t a robust diversity of opinion fueling most of the county’s projects. Criminal justice, for example, the county’s single greatest expense, featured prominently in Eckhardt’s speech.

She lauded the Jail Population Monitoring Group’s success in bringing custodial bookings down by 28 percent over the last five years, the county’s diligent pursuit of jail diversion strategies and a drastic decrease in the average time individuals spend in jail waiting for trial. However, she also mentioned the county’s continued struggles with providing proper indigent defense, bringing sexual assault cases to completion, updating DNA testing, and merging misdemeanor and felony prosecution into one office.

The county is near the end of a collaborative review of its DNA testing with the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center that is making possible legal “do-overs” in cases where flawed DNA evidence could have affected the outcome. Eckhardt has brought in former state Sen. Wendy Davis to facilitate the Travis County Sexual Assault Prevention and Healing Work Group. Eckhardt declined to go into specifics about those efforts currently in the works, mentioning the pending sexual assault lawsuit against the county and saying the topic was highly charged and personal.

The county is also fighting to find common ground regarding indigent defense and combining prosecution of misdemeanor and felony offenses. Giving a shout-out to Amanda Woog in the audience, chair of the Indigent Legal Services work group, Eckhardt acknowledged that the experimental group has faced serious communication challenges while scrambling to put together a coherent plan for a public defender office by March 11.

Eckhardt also said she was “deeply disappointed” that the county has not been able to combine prosecution into a criminal district attorney’s office. “Having two offices of criminal prosecutors, even two liberal ones, produces more swings of the criminal justice sword than necessary at great cost to taxpayers and much greater cost to the accused, but the politics of Travis County isn’t yet ready to make that evolution.”

A merger would equate placing a higher priority on more serious offenses, which doesn’t sit well with those already critical of the county’s efforts at de-emphasizing – essentially decriminalizing – misdemeanor offenses like possession of small amounts of marijuana or public intoxication. That item is on hold for now until the court believes it can get the supermajority, four commissioner votes, necessary to get it through the Texas Legislature.

Criminal justice aside, Eckhardt said the county is excelling in growing economic prosperity while continuing to keep property taxes low, largely due to the county’s steadily growing tax base. She also thanked Commissioner Brigid Shea for her leadership in winning the fight to maintain the endangered status of the golden-cheeked warbler. “We know that efforts to roll back protections will continue and we will not waver in protecting our critters,” Eckhardt said.

Looking forward, Eckhardt said the county is on track to complete each of its 60 transportation, parks and drainage projects passed in the 2017 bond package and is already planning projects for a 2023 bond referendum. Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Project Connect, she said, is already contributing to that project list.

Regarding transportation, she said Travis County is ready to put property tax revenue toward transit access outside of Austin city limits and will be pushing Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to put toll revenue into regional transit, based on the model of Capital Metro’s express service on MoPac Expressway.

The county is at last ready to start issuing debt through certificates of obligation to have a new civil and family courthouse at 17th and Guadalupe streets completed by the end of 2022. In addition to the taxpayer debt, Eckhardt said revenue from the sale of the Swante Palm School property in downtown Austin will go to the courthouse as well.

Eckhardt was particularly enthused about the eastern Travis County parks and trails system in the works, a possible reimagining of the Travis County Exposition Center as a mixed-use community, a planned 146-unit county-owned affordable housing development at Airport Boulevard and 53rd Street, and continued progress toward the 10,000 by 2021 workforce training initiative to quintuple the number of people employed in middle-skill jobs countywide.

As for two things largely out of the county’s hands – the Texas Legislature and climate change – Eckhardt said the county is doing everything possible to mitigate potential disasters. Regarding property taxes, she stressed that no tax relief will be possible without the state putting money into education. As for climate change, she praised Shea’s efforts to prepare vulnerable residents for natural disasters as well as the county’s adoption of more rigorous infrastructure standards last year, despite the inconvenience to public and private development.

One thing we can all do to help mitigate the climate crisis, Eckhardt said, is to drive less often. “Our greatest local contributor to climate change is our tailpipe emissions, so if we can drive less and use transit more we will be doing our part to improve our environment.”

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