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Ann Howard reflects on a turbulent first year in office

Wednesday, December 29, 2021 by Anna Kate Browne

From the winter storm last February to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Travis County Commissioner Ann Howard has seen a lot this past year. The Austin Monitor sat down with Howard to reflect on 2021 and the highs and lows that came with it.

“My first year here in office is this intense year of pandemic and winter storm,” she said. “Between the two of those things, we have learned so much about our community. Strengths and weaknesses and things we need to be doing, and that’s human-to-human and also our infrastructure.”

One of the things the commissioner is excited to share is the way the county invested some of the money from the American Rescue Plan Act toward affordable housing, in an effort to fight homelessness in the region.

“The county has committed $110 million that will help provide several thousand homes for people,” said Howard, who formerly served as executive director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO. “It has been a wonderful opportunity to help coalesce so many organizations and efforts and really move the ball on that issue.”

She’s also proud of the work that the county is doing to try to stop the incarceration of people who struggle with mental health issues.

“We committed more money to mental health programs to help divert people out of the criminal justice system and make sure there’s more services in the community to help them stay strong and stay safe and not end up in jail,” she noted.

Howard is also happy with the work that the county has done regarding health and safety, including efforts to get people vaccinated and road safety. “All the work to get the vaccinations into arms, but that wasn’t the only thing – we’ve done some initiatives to get more law enforcement on roads where there’s a lot of traffic incidents,” she said.

While the year has held good things, Howard said she had a learning curve since it was her first year in office. 

When agenda items were presented, she had often heard about them, but wanted to do more. “Because I’m new, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to influence those things coming to the agenda,” she said.

The commissioner said she is taking time to learn about important topics and the people who are invested in them. “I sort of invested this year in getting to know county staff and then community influencers or operators that are involved with these different issues.”

Howard also spent a lot of time talking with people face-to-face about wildfire prevention, and she hopes to continue that next year. “I’ve been out across different neighborhoods in the county with the fire marshal staff to talk with people and do home ignition zone assessments,” she said. “It’s that sort of person-by-person, house-by-house kind of work that we need to do in several areas.”

Looking forward to next year, Howard is hoping to figure out how development in the west will look when it comes to preserving green spaces.

“It’s a really big deal for me and Travis County right now to get a grip on what the future development landscape is, and see how we can shape it to be the healthiest it can be.”

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

Photo via Facebook.

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