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Travis County to establish first ‘strategic plan’

Thursday, May 23, 2019 by Jack Craver

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to begin formulating a long-range strategic plan to guide county policies and budgeting practices for years to come.

The executives in charge of the county’s eight major departments have put in place strategic plans governing their own agencies, but this is the first time that the Commissioners Court will establish one for the entire county, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor.

“A strategic plan is a way for us to acknowledge all of the planning that has gone on among the fifty-some elected officials, as well as some of the appointed officials and high-level management,” she said. “And to make sure that it is all part of a cohesive strategy going forward.”

Having clearly defined expectations for programs and tax dollars will become even more critical in the likely event that the state Legislature approves a law in the coming days sharply limiting the ability of local governments to raise property taxes without voter approval.

“We’re going to need to be strategic and decide what is truly moving our mission forward,” she said.

Establishing a strategic plan will probably not happen quickly. The recommendation the court approved suggests one could be ready by the time the court is crafting the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget, about two years from now.

The recommendation also establishes the Commissioners Court as the “executive sponsor” of the plan, meaning it will be the court, rather than county staff, that “clarifies the project’s critical success factors and approves deliverables in accordance with the scope of the project.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty dismissed the concept, saying such a plan lacked teeth without the guidance of a designated official in charge. Daugherty has long advocated for establishing a county administrator/manager who oversees the county bureaucracy, much as the city of Austin’s bureaucracy is headed by an appointed city manager.

“I’m basically going to bow out of all this because I’m so opposed to doing all of this,” said Daugherty.

The proposal to kick off the strategic planning process was approved 4-1, with only Daugherty opposed.

Eckhardt pleaded with Daugherty to remain engaged in the process.

“Your opinion, your perspective, your constituency are important to this process,” she said.

Speaking to the Monitor after the vote, Daugherty said he didn’t see how a strategic plan could work unless there was a “boss” who could be held accountable for achieving Travis County’s goals.

“I don’t know of a billion-dollar corporation that doesn’t have a CEO,” he said.

Eckhardt has said that while she supports the idea of a county administrator, she would only approve of creating the position if at least four of the five commissioners backed the idea. That level of support, she told the Monitor, would be necessary for any qualified candidates to feel they have the backing of the elected officials they are seeking to serve.

At this point, Eckhardt guessed that she and Daugherty were the only two on the court who support hiring an administrator.

In an interview, Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he believed the position would “add another layer of bureaucracy” to county government. Commissioner Margaret Gómez agreed, saying that the county’s current system holds commissioners accountable to the voters.

“If we have an administrator, that person would be really in charge and the commissioners would basically be his assistants,” she said.

Asked if that was how she perceived City Council’s relationship to the city manager, she said, “Yes.”

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