The Austin Chronicle

Eckhardt: The State of the County Is ...

By Austin Sanders, February 12, 2018, 10:00am, Newsdesk

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s State of the County address last Thursday evening may well have been called a State of the County Within the State.

“The state has stopped governing,” proclaimed the county head, positioning the role of her office and court as increasingly important in a time when divisive politics render the statehouse immobile on issues like property taxes and government ethics. Eckhardt slammed the state Legislature for showing more interest in appeasing wealthy individuals and business interests who have the power to bend the ear of lawmakers, instead of working to solve pressing problems facing the state. She accused state and federal officials of being unwilling to find ways to finance public education or to provide for badly needed infrastructure improvement. Instead, she pointed out, the state complained about property taxes while they “commandeered those same local tax dollars” to fund the projects they were unwilling to pay for through the state budget.

Thursday wasn’t all about attacks on our woebegone Capitol. Eckhardt also used the annual address to tout several local accomplishments, citing the opening of a new Medical Examiner's Office on Springdale Road and the success of the Jail Population Task Force which, she said, had been used “to get people out of county jail who posed no public safety threat.” She also applauded the efforts of volunteer first responders – referred to as the “Cajun Navy” – who snapped into action to help coastal Texans during Hurricane Harvey.

In addition to praising the determination of everyday Texans, the county’s top executive also commended the role her office played in helping neighboring counties with Harvey relief. Travis, Tarrant, Bexar, and Dallas counties helped prepare over 20,000 beds for evacuees after the hurricane crashed into the coast, she said. In response to the floods which surged through Central Texas as Harvey devastated the eastern part of the state, county officials took steps to update emergency management plans and began development of a “continuity of operations plan” which would keep the lights on at government offices during natural disasters. Below are a few of the initiatives Eckhardt announced or updated at the address.

Transportation: With passage of the $185 million transportation and parks bond last fall with 70% voter approval, Eckhardt emphasized the importance county residents placed on road improvements. She said the county had invested an additional $95 million in safety projects on roadways in areas affected by floods, and she pledged that all of the projects covered by that funding would be “substantially underway or completed” by 2023. She said that the county would ask for help from the Central Texas Regional Mobility program to expedite critical safety projects in Southeast Travis County.

Mental Health Care: Eckhardt talked of efforts to reduce the number of people sent to county jails who would be better served by behavioral health care professionals. Specifically, she mentioned a partnership with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, pretrial services and Integral Care – the Local Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disability Authority in Travis County – to implement a mental health diversion program. The program aims to identify defendants whose arrest may have been a result of their battle with mental illness. “Once identified,” she explained, “the person receives wraparound care to get connected with health care, housing, and other services to improve personal safety and public safety.” The pilot program had helped 137 people in 2017, and the county’s collaborative efforts were awarded $2.5 million to continue expanding the program.

Criminal Justice: In addition to the Jail Population Task Force, Eckhardt said the county is reforming its criminal justice system in District Attorney Margaret Moore’s efforts to find new ways to deal with low-level drug possession cases, which, she said, represent 25% of felonies filed in Travis County. Moore has also commissioned a study to determine what role racial disparity plays in pretrial detention, and Eckhardt said one way to help alleviate that disparity was by working toward a “comprehensive public defender’s office.” She addressed the myriad failures revealed to have taken place in the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab in 2016, saying city and county officials, members of the scientific community, and law enforcement representatives had met weekly for two years to get to the bottom of the lab’s problems.

Economic Development: Although county households overall have a higher median income than other areas in Texas and the U.S., Eckhardt acknowledged that the prosperity was not shared throughout the county. Referring to 2015 county data which showed median household incomes in eastern parts of the county to be half-or-less than that of incomes in the middle parts of the county, Eckhardt promised to do better by the underserved residents she represents. “In 2018 I will be laser focused on communities and projects with the highest probabilities of putting prosperity in the reach of those families.”

One way Eckhardt believes the county can help these families is to work with Cap Metro to expand transit beyond their current service areas within the city. She hoped to serve the communities along Highway 290, such as Elgin and Manor, by “making Capital Metro’s Green Line a reality as a train or as a dedicated bus and autonomous vehicle corridor.” Eckhardt paid special attention to southeastern Travis County, which is particularly vulnerable to environmental disaster because of its dense housing and position on floodplains. Despite the dangers posed from flooding, however, Eckhardt described the area as a major asset for agricultural production – although she did note how the county only gets 1% of its food from local sources. Eckhardt said she and Austin City Council Member Delia Garza were working toward establishing a “vibrant regional food hub” in the area, which would bring together local farms and small businesses to provide “healthy food and significant economic stimulus.”

In closing her address, Eckhardt criticized what she described as “dysfunctional tax policies” and state efforts to “cripple local control” – apparent references to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recently unveiled tax plan, which would limit the amount of revenues cities and counties could bring in to 2.5 percent a year. She pledged to work with others who saw the value in “collective action for collective good.” “Sharing responsibility and sharing prosperity is the genius of the democratic nation,” Eckhardt asserted. “We have the courage to share in Travis County. Let’s show the region, the nation and the state how it’s done, y'all.”

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