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County Judge Sarah Eckhardt sees a future of tough decisions and tax referendums for Travis County

Friday, January 3, 2020 by Jack Craver

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has plenty of good news to report as she looks back on 2019.

Her greatest achievement is the county’s new public defender’s office, for which she was the lead champion on the Commissioners Court. While her background in criminal law was as a prosecutor, Eckhardt was a passionate voice for providing better legal defense to poor people.

Setting up an office with dedicated public defenders will help to raise the bar for legal defense in Travis County, she says, even if the majority of indigent defendants will continue to be represented by private attorneys contracted by the county.

“This was the last year to bring up a new big program in Travis County,” since it was the last year the county was not subject to the local government property tax limits signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this summer.

Hiring dedicated public defenders, and changing the way most private contractors are paid, will result in more aggressive representation overall, she predicts. And that, in turn, will lead to lighter sentences, more people granted bail, and ultimately, lower costs to the taxpayer.

Another recent achievement for the taxpayer that Eckhardt touts is the consultant the county hired to oversee the delivery of its bond packages. The new program manager – authorized by a 2018 vote by the court – has centralized a process that used to be divided between two county departments and was struggling to get projects started on time.

The county is now able to get projects done about four times as fast as before, she says.

“Time is money in roadway and water construction projects. So we’re also saving a tremendous amount of money.”

As for the things that didn’t go her way, “I like to forget about the bad stuff,” she quips.

Yet Eckhardt knows better than anyone that some bad stuff will continue to cast a shadow over much of the court’s work in the coming years. Most notably, the state law passed last year that will limit local property tax growth to 3.5 percent per year, unless voters approve a higher level, “will definitely color what we do going into the future,” she says.

The county will be in OK shape for the next few years, she predicts. It’s not until 2022 that the county will be seriously strapped for cash and may have to ask voters to approve going above the 3.5 percent limit.

She has already had discussions with Sheriff Sally Hernandez about the future prospect of asking voters to approve a tax increase to hire more sheriff’s deputies. The additional deputies will be needed to “keep pace” with population growth, and she believes focusing on law enforcement would provide a “clear narrative” that voters respond well to.

Eckhardt recognizes that Travis County is unlikely to be the only local government asking voters to hand over more money in the coming years. Municipalities and school districts, most notably the city of Austin and the Austin Independent School District, will be hungry for additional revenue as well.

Eckhardt foresees “a referendum logjam that will be exhausting to the electorate,” which is why it’s so important the county be strategic in its ask.

That the 3.5 percent tax limit even passed came as a surprise to Eckhardt. She initially believed the governor and legislative leaders had proposed such a low limit simply as a bargaining tactic.

“I thought this was a negotiating strategy to maybe get us to 6 percent, which I could have supported,” she says. “But it wasn’t a negotiating strategy; this is where they wanted to be. They did not budge even after wave after wave of policy professionals said there would be serious negative consequences.”

She regrets that she, like other local officials, was “not able to break through and have a conversation” with Republican legislators “about governance and how this would tie our hands in doing the things that they want us to do,” from building roads to running jails.

“I’ll keep working on that,” she says.

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