AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt gave the State of the County address Thursday evening, announcing the county’s new goals for 2018 and reviewing its accomplishments in 2017.
The 6 p.m. speech, at the Travis County Administration Building at 700 Lavaca St., was open to the public.
On Monday, the county sued the makers, distributors and marketers of pharmaceutical opioids for damages and penalties, describing the legal action as essential to protecting the interests of the county and its citizens. The county is seeking up to $100 million.
You can read Judge Eckhardt’s full address below:
Thank you so much for allowing me to serve you these last three years. Because of you, the state of Travis County is strong. You asked Travis County and its elected leaders to lean in, to bypass the super-heated political rhetoric, to fill the void of leadership and compassion, to resist the dysfunction we are experiencing at other levels of government and to get things done effectively, efficiently and fairly.
The State has stopped governing. And since 2017, we can no longer rely on the Federal government to fill the void. As the Chinese curse goes, “May we live in interesting times.” In these interesting times I am honored to serve the people of Travis County who expect excellence and collaboration in local governance.
That open spirit of shared responsibility for shared prosperity has borne fruit in deeper partnerships with municipalities as diverse as Austin, Bee Caves and Manor. Travis County regularly partners with Williamson and Hays counties. Those partnerships have forged alliances up and down the IH 35 corridor, from Georgetown to San Antonio and from Marble Falls to LaGrange. And, I now regularly coordinate with my County Judge counterparts in Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and El Paso counties. Combined, the Major Metro 6 County Judges represent nearly one-half of the population in the State of Texas. Four of us are Democrats. Two of us are Republicans. We don’t share the same party, but we share the responsibility for shaping a better future for our counties and our state.
Reaching our goals requires teamwork. I am grateful to my colleagues on the Commissioners Court, the other 45 elected officials in Travis County government, and the more than 5,000 public servants working for Travis County 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, in courtrooms, on roadways, in fires, floods and drought, to:
Promote community resilience in daily living and in times of emergency;
Promote the well‐being of our residents through social, economic and health and safety initiatives;
Ensure the public safety and peaceful resolution of conflicts through the justice system and other public processes;
Preserve and protect our environment and natural resources through responsible land stewardship;
Empower the public through civic engagement and collaboration; and
Foster transportation mobility and accessibility.
Thank you to my staff and to our awesome team of County Executives. I am honored to serve with the public employees of Travis County, many of whom are here tonight. You are the reason the state of the County is strong.
2017 was a busy year. While we attempt to peacefully resolve legal disputes with our colleagues at the state and federal level over immigration and redistricting, we also struggled with providing respectful spaces to peacefully resolve civil and family disputes right here at home in our growing community.
We learned from the outcome of our 2015 civil and family courts bond election that the property we had set aside at Guadalupe and 3rd Street to build more courts was more highly prized by private developers than we realized. So, we leased it to them in a competitive process … for A LOT of money! Now, that windfall is pledged to offset the cost of building court capacity at another location. In the coming weeks and months we will roll out a process to build more courts at a location that is broadly embraced and at a total program cost that is LESS than what we proposed in 2015!
In the meantime, we’ll cram one more court in the overstuffed Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse and move two Probate Courts out and into the historic federal courthouse by 2021. These actions over the next several years will lessen the strain slightly until we can get new courts built by 2023.
Last year, in order to prepare for our future transportation needs, voters approved a $185M transportation and parks bond with more than 70% of the vote and we have begun investing an additional $95M in crucial safety projects on roadways and in neighborhoods devastated by floods. I pledge to you that every one of those projects will be well underway, if not completed, by 2023. We will be doubling our in-house project management capacity by adding a private consultant-led project management team. As these two teams work collaboratively, we will also tap the talents of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to expedite our crucial safety projects in underserved South East Travis County.
We have seen our share of calamity in recent years. Our community and others like ours have experienced drought, wildfire, floods and man-made disasters. From loss we have learned. In the last year Travis County has updated multiple emergency plans, implemented the Emergency Management Framework – a multi-agency and multi-county collaborative response network – and launched the development of a Continuity of Operations Plan to keep your government running during times of emergency.
Beyond our metropolitan region, we also work with our Major Metro 6 counties, responding to them and with them in times of disaster. During Hurricane Harvey, Travis County was in constant communication with Harris County and the State of Texas. Bexar, Tarrant, Dallas and Travis counties were preparing space for more than 20,000 evacuees within hours after the storm. And, Travis County joined local governments across the state responding to hard-hit areas of the coast more quickly than State or Federal agencies could muster.
We have all been inspired by the volunteer first responders and private citizens who came to the rescue of their neighbors along the coast and as far inland as hard-hit Fayette County. In my capacity as the Emergency Management Director of Travis County, thank you for your service and your sacrifice. The Cajun Navy and others like them have shown how neighbors helping neighbors heals a wounded community. Commissioner Shea has been advocating at the local, national and international level for individual and collective resilience in response to extreme weather events. If you have the resources, preparing to be self-sufficient for 2-3 days, if not 2-3 weeks, after a disaster increases your personal safety AND your ability to help family, friends and first responders in those chaotic first hours and days after an event like Hurricane Harvey. If you would like to become involved with a Voluntary Organization Active in Disasters (VOADs), visit CentralTxVOAD.com. And, for personal preparedness in wildfire, flood and other calamities, please visit Ready.Gov.
We have collaborated with Central Health, Community Care, Integral Care, the St. David’s Foundation, Seton and the University of Texas Medical School to address the healthcare needs of our community. At the end of 2017 Travis County, Community Care and Integral Care answered a need long-expressed by Commissioner Gomez and the residents of Del Valle for clinic services. Co-located with the Travis County Employee Wellness Clinic, Community Care and Integral Care now also provide health care services and behavioral health to the community at large.
We have also been working as a Travis County collaborative to give people in behavioral health crisis access to timely and appropriate care and ending the practice of using the county jail as a provider of last resort. The Travis County Sheriff’s Office and Pretrial Services, in partnership with Integral Care, have piloted a Mental Health Jail Diversion program that identifies as early in the process as possible defendants whose arrest is really the consequence of mental illness. Once identified, the person receives wrap-around services to get connected with health care, housing and other services to improve personal safety and public safety. The pilot has helped 137 people so far. We will expand this effort in 2018.
Our partners have also expanded options for appropriate treatment outside of the criminal justice context with the opening of the Judge Guy Herman Center for Mental Health off Ben White, a collaboration of Integral Care, Central Health and the St. David’s Foundation.
In partnership with the City of Austin, we will be opening the Sobriety Center in Fall 2018 to provide another alternative to jail or the emergency room for individuals who pose a threat to themselves and to public safety due to their intoxication.
And our Jail Population Task Force continues to monitor who is in our jail, why they’re there, and to look for more effective, efficient and fair alternatives to incarceration for those who suffer with mental illness and addiction.
These successful efforts have captured the notice of the State. Earlier this week I received word that the Travis County collaborative has been awarded $2.5M from Senate Bill 292 funding to continue and expand the wrap-around coordination among the County, the City of Austin, Integral Care and Central Health.
We also cut the ribbon on our new Medical Examiners Facility off Springdale Rd. and established a forensic pathology fellowship program in partnership with UT Medical Branch at Galveston. Our ME Office provides forensic autopsies to more than 40 counties in Texas. It is one of only 38 offices in the entire country accredited to train new pathologists. I want this standard of objective scientific excellence for all of our forensic analysis, from ballistics to DNA.
In order to improve transparency and better serve our residents with the information that is rightfully theirs we created the first ever county-wide Public Information Office. Now, the press and reporters we count on to tell the story of Travis County (good or bad, happy or sad) have a one-stop shop for reliable information.
To make sure that low-income Travis County residents share in our region’s prosperity, Mayor Adler and I kicked off the Master Community Workforce Plan in collaboration with Workforce Solutions of the Capital Area with the goal of training and placing 10,000 low-income Travis County residents in middle skill jobs with promising careers by 2021.
Along with the good work that will continue from the previous year, we have a lot of new challenges in Justice, Economic Development and in Preservation of our Natural Heritage that will take every bit of the next five years to accomplish.
In the area of Criminal Justice, I am continuing the Travis County collaboration with our District Attorney Margaret Moore, County Attorney David Escamilla, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, our judges and so many others in Travis County committed to continual analysis and improvement. Our activist community reminds us on a regular basis that Criminal Justice is a sharp and heavy sword that must be wielded with skill and precision, and only when public safety demands it. Our collaboration utilizes multiple approaches to make sure our criminal justice system is effective, efficient and fair; that it is no larger than necessary; and that involvement in the criminal justice system is only as onerous as public safety demands.
We’re getting people out of County Jail who pose no public safety threat through the use of the Jail Population Task Force.
We are collecting and analyzing courtroom data on who goes through our system, how they go through it and what the outcomes are from that experience. To increase awareness and transparency in the operation of our justice system we launched the Courts Dashboard. We’ll be launching the Jail Dashboard later this week.
The District Attorney’s Office is looking at innovative ways to deal with low-level felony drug possession cases, which represent more than 25% of all felonies filed, and has commissioned an independent study to examine whether racial disparities play a role in pre-trial detention and outcomes. Although Travis County has made considerable investments in appointed counsel for indigent defense, both in-house and independent studies are suggesting we seriously explore a comprehensive Public Defenders Office to reduce inequities in outcomes.
And I can’t leave the topic of criminal justice without updating you on the next steps to addressing the 2016 failure of the APD DNA Lab. Every Wednesday for two years, representatives of the Prosecution, Defense, Law Enforcement, Scientific Community and City and County management have been meeting down the hall from my office to reverse the damage done by unreliable DNA analysis at the lab managed by APD. I have confidence in the process in place to review the cases and provide justice to those who have been harmed.
In 2018 the public servants who have been meeting weekly for two years have been joined by community representatives and an outside expert to begin looking forward to a new system that will prevent this from happening again. I believe that unbiased and trustworthy forensic scientific analysis should be managed by scientists rather than law enforcement, similar to how we operate the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office. Justice demands that we make this change.
For me, Economic Development means community resilience in daily living and in times of emergency through education and training, quality and affordable communities, and public infrastructure that supports every employer and every employee. With our booming economy we have the resources to achieve a truly shared prosperity for all. Taken as a whole, Travis County households enjoy higher income, higher education and the benefits that have established Austin and Central Texas as among the top places to live in the U.S. Yet too few of the hard-working families in Eastern Travis County have access to a good education and a job with decent wages and benefits. Families in North East and South East Travis County deserve to share in the prosperity that they helped build.
In 2018 I will put a laser focus on communities and projects with the highest probability of putting prosperity in reach of those families. Commissioner Travillion and I will work with the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to expedite construction of transportation corridors and to expand transit beyond the current Cap Metro service area.
This work will include tax benefit analysis of making Capital Metro’s Green Line a reality as a train or as a dedicated bus and autonomous vehicle corridor serving communities like Elgin, Manor and Colony Park along SH 290 East.
South East Travis County deserves significant additional attention. Frequent flooding presents deadly challenges to dense housing development. But, as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says of his floodplains, we can turn perceived vulnerabilities into assets. Millennia of frequent flooding have made South East Travis County a significant agricultural asset. Travis County loses 9.3 acres of farmland to development every day. Once rich in local agricultural production, today we get only 1% of our food from local sources. Council Member Delia Garza and I are committed to a vibrant Regional Food Hub with local farms, small businesses, satisfying jobs, access to healthy food and significant economic stimulus. Over the next year we will explore the Local Food Economy with the residents of South East Travis County, integrating efforts to preserve farmland and support local food production entrepreneurs.
In addition to building the Local Food Economy, Eastern Travis County is an ideal location for recreation and festivals. Over the next year we will explore the location, job types and entrepreneurial opportunities of an expanding festival economy at the Exposition Center, in public parks and on private lands along the banks of Eastern Travis County.
We live in one of the most beautiful places in the state if not the country. We have a strong tradition on which to build sustained preservation and increased respect and access by residents of and visitors to Travis County.
With the passage of the 2017 bond package we are in the home stretch of completing our constellation of four regional metro parks and 30 miles of Eastern Travis County trails unique among urban counties in Texas. By 2020 we will cut the ribbon on the Bee Creek Sports Complex in South West Travis County, the last of our four regional metro parks – a major accomplishment of Commissioner Daugherty’s. Locating suitable and affordable acreage for a South West metro park has been a daunting task. Property values in the South West are the highest in Travis County. And the topography and environmental sensitivities of the region are extreme. A generous contribution of land from the City of Lakeway and Commissioner Daugherty’s strong relationships in the area have made this metro park possible.
Along with the Bee Creek addition to our Western Travis County park assets, we will significantly expand our trail systems in Eastern Travis County. Before 2021, we will cut the ribbon on the Onion Creek Greenway project, developed in partnership with the City of Austin to include playgrounds, picnic areas, fishing ponds and more than 11 miles of multi-use trails from US 183 to where Onion Creek meets the Colorado River.
To the north, we’ve purchased more than 1200 acres on Gilleland Creek for our next greenway that will run from Pflugerville, through Manor, to the Colorado River near Webberville. Land acquisition and design for this 19 mile trail is underway now. Land conservation is also underway on Wilbarger Creek in far eastern Travis County. Expect to see the Wilbarger and Gilleland Creek projects on the next bond referendum and please support them.
Our wild places are disappearing rapidly. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. We must speed up our pace of preserving the waterfront beauty of these eastern creeks, along with the wildlife habitat and flood management benefits they provide. Future generations will thank us…and we encourage all Travis County residents to …Take it Outside! and visit our wonderful county parks.
We won’t accomplish these goals without PARTNERSHIP. And partnership requires a sharing of responsibility. Our collective property tax resources are limited. But our collective responsibility for property taxes has been unfairly heaped on the backs of those least able to pay. Wealthier individuals and businesses with the ear of State Legislators are afforded more opportunities to dodge taxes through business incentives, exemptions and suppressed appraisal values. While complaining bitterly about property taxes, state and federal officials commandeer those same local tax dollars to fund what they are unwilling to – public education, healthcare, state highways and even federal responsibilities like immigration enforcement. Governor Abbott has instructed the next Legislature to further limit local control by capping local tax revenues. A cap means an even greater percentage of our local revenues will go to unfunded state or federal mandates if not siphoned directly into State coffers leaving even less to address local goals in justice, economic development and environmental stewardship. Courageous leaders in both parties have had enough of dysfunctional tax policies and the crippling of local control. In bipartisan chorus, county judges, mayors, business and community leaders are speaking up for good governance and shared responsibility. We are speaking out and reaching out, finding all kinds of opportunities to share costs, leverage successes and increase our reach. In these interesting times of Winner Take All retribution politics, those in the public and private sectors who recognize the true value of collective action for collective good are finding each other.
We will keep the door open and the lights on for our partners in state and federal government. There are many committed public servants in both parties and in all levels of government willing to share responsibility for shared prosperity. I look forward to expanding existing partnerships and welcoming new and perhaps unanticipated allies in our work.
Sharing power, sharing responsibility, sharing prosperity is the genius of a democratic nation. We have the courage to share in Travis County. Let’s show the region, the state and the nation how it’s done, y’all!
Thank you for electing me to serve. Thank you for this opportunity to grow along with my community. I am honored, humbled and very much looking forward to the next five years!