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Andy Brown intends to double down on overdose prevention efforts in 2023

Wednesday, January 4, 2023 by Emma Freer

Coming off a landslide reelection victory in the November election, Travis County Judge Andy Brown is proud of how the Commissioners Court responded to challenges in 2022, from staffing shortages and new state laws threatening civil rights to housing affordability and the recent Arctic freeze. The county also laid the groundwork to launch a mental health diversion pilot program and prevent overdose deaths, two issues he said remain top priorities for 2023. 

“I’m real happy with the way that the Commissioners Court worked together this year,” he told the Austin Monitor

On the staffing front, the Commissioners Court passed a new paid parental leave policy, entitling county employees to eight weeks of paid time off after the birth, adoption, foster placement or kinship placement of a child, and raised the minimum hourly wage for county employees from $15 to $20.

Brown already has heard anecdotal evidence from county staff, including at the Transportation and Natural Resources Department and Travis County Jail, that these changes have helped improve recruiting and hiring.

“I’m glad that we made those investments in recognizing the value of county workers, making it a more family-friendly place for anyone who wants to have a kid or adopt a kid,” he said. 

Brown also put forward resolutions supporting transgender residents after the state began investigating parents of trans children and ensuring county funds would not be used to investigate and prosecute abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. 

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that people aren’t prosecuted here in Travis County for doing that and that we are not using county resources to support any investigations or prosecutions of people and their doctors,” he said about the latter resolution.

As housing costs continue to rise across the Austin metro, the Commissioners Court allocated more than $2.5 million in its Fiscal Year 2023 budget toward streamlining the development and permitting processes for housing and other projects, including hiring more engineers to process applications. 

“The goal there is to shrink the time it takes to build housing in Travis County,” Brown said.

In November the Commissioners Court passed a gun violence intervention resolution, which included funding for a hospital-based violence intervention program and a regional ballistics information network, or NIBIN center, which grants local law enforcement agencies access to a database of ballistic evidence to assist in solving crimes. 

More recently, Brown helped coordinate the city-county response to a recent freeze in Austin and other parts of Texas. County employees, including social workers and mental health counselors, helped staff warming centers and cold weather shelters around the region. 

“Some room for improvement would be the way that people access the shelters, trying to make it easier for them to access them earlier in the day,” he said. “But I think it was a much improved effort over what happened two years ago with Winter Storm Uri.”

Looking ahead to 2023, Brown is focused on two efforts already underway: preventing overdose deaths, especially from fentanyl, and launching a mental health diversion pilot program. 

Between January and June, 118 people died of fentanyl overdoses in Travis County – as many as died in all of 2021. In response to this surge, the Commissioners Court allocated $350,000 toward overdose prevention efforts, including buying medicines like naloxone that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. 

During the upcoming state legislative session, Brown would like state lawmakers to legalize fentanyl testing strips, a policy Gov. Greg Abbott recently said he supports. He also would like to see the Legislature increase funding for naloxone, which the state could then distribute to cities and counties, and remove the barriers for municipalities to work with nonprofits that distribute naloxone and similar medications.  

“Nobody should die because of an addiction,” Brown said. “Nobody should die because they’re using a recreational drug.”

Brown says recent data indicates the number of people in the Travis County Jail with an unmet mental health need has doubled since before the pandemic. He points to programs in other cities, including Houston, as inspiration for a mental health diversion pilot program that would redirect people from jail and toward support services. 

Such a program hinges on a supply of affordable housing, which he identified as another priority for 2023.

“Whatever (diversion program) model we have, we also need to have increased supportive housing on the back end, so that when people go through the diversion program (and) get stabilized, they have a safe place with support to live,” he said.

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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