Sarah Eckhardt's State of the County Address Features Brags and Worries
The state of Travis County is strong, but challenges remain
By Michael King, Fri., March 15, 2019
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt began her "State of the County" address in lighthearted fashion, looking backward over her tenure and forward to four more years of "fresh, local public service, served hot daily." Considering the political atmosphere elsewhere – a "divided" world, country, and state – Travis County, she said, "keeps going," serving "the common good" by finding "common ground" while treating each other with "common decency."
The alliteration didn't persist as Eckhardt indulged in fairly predictable boosterism. After congratulating a trio of solid citizens, she cited local prosperity, a growing tax base that enabled a lower tax rate, and praised in turn her Commissioners Court colleagues for particular accomplishments: Gerald Daugherty for his fiscal prudence, Brigid Shea for environmental stewardship ("We will not waver in protecting our critters"), Margaret Gómez for her work with Central Health. For more general accomplishments, she cited the recently opened Sobering Center (reportedly doing bang-up business during SXSW), courts and jail "dashboard" tracking, and the Jail Population Monitoring Group, which has helped deliver a 28% decrease in custodial bookings at the Travis County Jail over the last five years.
The county judge said she's looking for more of the same going forward. The county's 2017 bond projects are ramping up, as is planning for more regional transit options, via the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (with Eckhardt urging Hays County be joined to the current two-county agency). The Travis Flats affordable housing complex is planned for the county's North Campus on Airport Boulevard, and a new civil and family courthouse is slated for completion at 17th and Guadalupe (former site of the Dog and Duck Pub) by the end of 2022. She also credited Commissioner Jeff Travillion for pursuing redevelopment of the Travis County Exposition Center as "a major entertainment, employment, and residential hub."
There were less optimistic notes as well. On criminal justice, Eckhardt is "deeply disappointed that we didn't merge felony and misdemeanor jurisdiction into one office," as proposed by District Attorney Margaret Moore and County Attorney David Escamilla but disposed of by the Commissioners Court. On the current gridlock over indigent defense – including a public defender's office – she sees significant progress ahead; on Thursday, March 7, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission gave Travis County a two-month extension to resolve its disagreements. Eckhardt did commend a steady reduction in both misdemeanor and felony prosecutions, and despite steadily upgrading the county jail, noted, "We have not increased the capacity of our jail in over 10 years and we don't plan to." Major ongoing problem projects include fixing the years-long collapse of city-county forensic evidence management, and she insisted, "Future forensic evidence should be managed by forensic scientists ... with allegiance only to sound science."
In the speech and responding to questions, Eckhardt also spotlighted the issue of climate change, citing regional transportation/mass transit efforts as well as risk planning. She also exhorted her listeners to support an accurate and complete 2020 census, "and make your voice heard by voting in 2020."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.