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Brown: The stakes are high for the county judge

Monday, January 3, 2022 by Seth Smalley

Unlike the city of Austin, Travis County doesn’t have a behind-the-scenes manager directing operations, overseeing staff and preparing budgets. But it does have Andy Brown, the county judge, head of the Commissioners Court and a former senior adviser to Beto O’Rourke during his 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate.

Over the last year or so, Brown organized the biggest non-federal vaccine operation in the state, weathered an unusually severe Texas snowstorm and played a seminal role in fending off a gargantuan-yet-unpopular investment plan to expand the holding capacity of the county jail. Oh, and did we mention that he was sued twice by the governor?

“It’s been a busy, busy year,” Brown told the Austin Monitor. “During the winter storm, I was there at the emergency operations center along with a lot of other county and city staffers.”

Brown doesn’t have to struggle to keep himself occupied, whether he’s at Commissioners Court, talking with constituents, agenda-setting with county executives, or meeting with the mayor, health authorities and other emergency response entities. Comparing his first full year as county judge to his years as an organizer and political campaigner, Brown said his current role is “way more intense.”

“The decisions that I’ve had to make have been life or death – with the winter storm where people lost their lives, or the pandemic where people lost their lives. Right now, the stakes are higher here,” the county judge said.

Brown considers his role in the bipartisan effort of organizing and executing a mass drive-thru vaccine clinic one of his greatest achievements of the year. Four county judges in total, two Democrats and two Republicans, Brown explained, banded together to ask for additional vaccines from the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

“At first they gave us 3,000 just to see if we could actually do it,” he said. But once the counties proved that their vaccine distribution plan would actually work, TDEM quickly forked over the rest. “In the end, we got about 200,000 more vaccines than we otherwise would have gotten.”

Over 10,000 people ended up volunteering for the program, which resulted in the rapid vaccination of thousands of CommUnityCare patients, AISD and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees, and others critical to the government infrastructure. Brown said one of the things the county learned is that meeting people where they are drastically improves vaccination volume.

“When we bring the vaccines to them – to the supermarket, to elementary schools, to places where people already are in the Eastern Crescent of Travis County – that’s the way you improve your vaccine uptake,” he said. “The result of that is we’ve now got about 28 percent of our kids aged 5 to 11 vaccinated, compared to about 15 percent statewide.”

Brown is also proud of the Commissioners Court’s decision to put $110 million of an approximately $200 million federal allotment toward solving the issue of homelessness in the region.

“There was a lot of pressure from all sides, you know, what to do with that money … but the Commissioners Court decided (to take) bold action,” Brown said. “Just dedicate $110 million of it towards housing for homeless people. Just the sheer amount of money and the fact that it is all dedicated to that one purpose is going to make a huge difference in our community.”

It’s estimated about 2,000 additional housing units will be created with the money, a game-changer for Austin’s homeless population of just over 3,100.

Brown also played a key part in the commissioners’ June decision to reject an $80 million proposal to expand the women’s jail, following a considerable outcry from the community.

“I was happy to see that the Commissioners Court voted against that, and instead, we are looking at putting additional resources into mental health, substance use disorders and harm reduction,” Brown said. “I think the way we make a safer community is by meeting people’s needs before they end up in jail.”

Brown readily points out that around 600 of the currently 1,700 people incarcerated in the Travis County Correctional Complex have some sort of mental health designation. “My opinion is that we can better address that population through services outside of the jail,” he said.

Looking forward, Brown hopes to continue the work of investing in housing, health and mental health resources in the community. His term ends in December 2022.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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