Austin @ Large: Austin at Large: You Kids Play Nice!

Can Austin and Travis County learn to share the job of urban government?

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large: You Kids Play Nice!
Illustration By Doug Potter

Why can't the city and the county work together? Karen Sonleitner seems a little sick and tired of being asked this question. "By its nature, county government is cooperative regional government," the Travis Co. commissioner for Precinct 2 says. "We already have cooperative working relationships with the city of Austin -- and the 21 other cities in Travis County. I've learned to just stay away from getting into that argument."

So why keep asking? When the Travis Co. Commissioners' Court redrew Sonleitner's northern/western precinct last year during redistricting, she traded conservative GOP boxes Out-in-the-County for left-leaning ones in the urban core. This prompted mutterings and flutterings that progressive Green Machine leaders would aim to bump off the unacceptably centrist two-term veteran in the primary. Political consultant Jeff Heckler will indeed face Sonleitner in March; former City Council Member Brigid Shea will not, though she says she gave great consideration to entering the race.

Heckler and Shea are clearly city folk, so why would they -- or, more importantly, the voters who'd be inclined to back them over Sonleitner -- care about the commissioners' court? Well, if you own a house, look at the property tax receipt you just got in the mail. The Travis County revenue bite is comparable to that taken by the city, and three-fourths of county residents also live in the city. Many are getting downright resentful over paying the county's freight without seeming to get any urban needs met in return. "I'm sure county residents [outside of Austin] don't like to think of themselves as being on welfare, but they are," Shea says. "The county is not pulling its weight on the tax-equity issue. It does not play well with others."

Before you go out and throw a fit, remember that the county has sole responsibility, by state mandate, for most of the local criminal-justice system, and that costs money in buckets. Unlike, say, Capital Metro, Travis County is not sitting on a cash reserve ripe for devotion to Austin projects. Plus, as Sonleitner has had many occasions lately to point out, "counties are severely limited in where they can spend their dollars." On roads, for instance, the county can't spend money within the Austin city limits except in the rarest circumstances. And counties, unlike home-rule cities, cannot make their own laws to govern land use or most anything else.

Blame all this on the Legislature, which has provided Texans with no tools and no handbook on how to run an urban county, let alone on how such a county should collaborate with its major cities. (In the vast majority of the state's counties, the commissioners' court is the only government, or at least the only one that matters.) That's not to let Travis County off the hook: Its record of management has not been sparkling, and it's been caught in a number of high-profile embarrassments -- such as a brand-new, over-budget criminal-justice center that leaks sewage into its records room.

For at least a couple of decades, city leaders have fantasized and toyed with various schemes to further consolidate the Austin and Travis Co. governments. (Public health, human services, and EMS are already combined.) Bruce Todd made it a major campaign theme when he jumped from what is now Sonleitner's seat into the mayor's chair. For his part, current Mayor Gus Garcia acknowledges that "with more and more of Travis County -- and even Williamson County -- in the city, we have to expand our involvement with those jurisdictions. And our relationship with the county is improving. But some day I would like to see just one government."

When pigs fly. But it is fair to ask, as Shea does, whether a county government that is really an urban government, supported to a vast extent by its major city, has the option of either not addressing urban needs or addressing them in a way the city may not like. Last November's road bonds were a major flashpoint, of course, since Austinites who do not want their city to subsidize sprawl or bring traffic through their neighborhoods are peeved about their county taxes going to acquire right-of-way for highways like SH 45 and SH 130 that will accomplish this exact purpose.

Ironically, though, on the various issues where Austin and Travis Co. have played nicely together -- be it EMS, or the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, or, in some cases, transportation planning -- the most visible player on the county side has often been Sonleitner. For example, even though the road-bond compromise she midwifed includes millions for SH 130, she was instrumental in cajoling, and for a while trying to coerce, the state into aligning that proposed toll road along the farther-east route preferred by both city and county. "In terms of day-to-day cooperation and collaboration," she says, "a lot of what the city and county do is low profile, but it's really quite extensive."

A good start, says Brigid Shea. However, she adds, "SH 130 is an example of what the county could have been doing in growth management all along, but hasn't. They can lead by setting out a vision of where they want to grow, and then work with the municipalities that have the land-use tools. But they don't seem to want to take responsibility for any of that. There are huge issues where the county has never really examined how it needs to share responsibilities with the city."

But the county "needs" to share the responsibility for urban government only in a practical sense, not an official one. Any cooperation between Austin and Travis County, be it an occasional lunch date or the consolidation of major departments, is going to depend on who's on the City Council and Commissioners' Court, what they believe, and how well they get along.

"A lot has to do with personal relationships, rather than what constituent base sent you there," Sonleitner says. "Like-minded people on the court, and the council will still disagree because of personalities. But if the council and the commissioners' court are doing their jobs, then it doesn't really matter. You have to think regionally and cooperatively to do this job, and good council members have to think the same way."

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Karen Sonleitner, urban government, Jeff Heckler, Brigid Shea, Bruce Todd, Gus Garcia, SH 45, SH 130, EMS, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve

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