Two races for Travis County positions, Travis County judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, might not be getting many headlines for next month’s election, but they are generating a lot of interest. The real competition for these safe Democratic seats happened in the March primary, when Democrats Sarah Eckhardt and Brigid Shea bested their formidable opponents. Unless something unusual happens, the Democrats will win Nov. 4. Those dynamics have shifted the focus from individual campaigns to county government’s relevance and role in tackling the Austin area’s affordability and mobility crises.
Travis County judge
We endorsed Eckhardt, 50, in the March primary for county judge for the seat being vacated by Sam Biscoe. And thus it’s no surprise that she gets our endorsement for the November election.
Biscoe, to his credit, steered the county through tough financial times during his tenure, which spans 17 years. And we appreciate his gracious exit at the end of this year when his term expires, announced more than a year ago. There is something refreshing about a politician who does not overstay his welcome. Eckhardt, with her knowledge of and experience in county government, fiscal sensibility and new ideas for reforming and modernizing county government, is the change county residents need.
Eckhardt served as Precinct 2 county commissioner from 2007 until last year, when she resigned to run for county judge. Among the initiatives she is advancing is performance-based budgeting, which is overdue. Consider that Travis County commissioners recently passed a budget, mostly funded by taxpayer dollars, that’s 122 percent larger than the spending plan adopted in 2000, the American-Statesman’s Andra Lim reported this month. By contrast, the county’s population grew just 32 percent in those years. So far we’ve not heard a plausible explanation for the disparity. And we have concerns that the current practice — in which county commissioners essentially refinance departments and programs automatically — is driving up taxes more rapidly than warranted and keeping programs on the books that should be retired.
We welcome an overhaul of that system, such as Eckhardt is proposing. Under a performance system, programs will be audited for effectiveness and relevance and won’t be refinanced or expanded if they aren’t meeting goals.
Her addition to the Travis County Commissioners Court likely will mean a realignment of the court toward greater discipline on budget matters, and that is a good thing. As commissioner, Eckhardt found herself on the losing side of a vote to award pay raises topping 10.5 percent to Travis County sheriff’s deputies. Certainly, employees should receive pay raises, but those were exorbitant.
Eckhardt has pledged to carry out a measure we’ve pushed to help address the area’s affordability crisis. Before making budget and tax decisions, we’ve called for a joint summit of taxing jurisdictions in which the city of Austin, Austin school district, Austin Community College, Central Health and Travis County collectively examine and address property taxes, bond packages, fees and other financial matters. Currently, each entity drafts its budget and sets its tax rate independently without regard for the total impact on taxpayers or their ability to pay that full load. A joint summit would generate transparency on tax bills and spur changes in dealing with mutual challenges, such as transportation, education, housing and social service needs. Collective planning offers opportunities to reduce duplication of services and leverage economies of scale.
Eckhardt faces Republican Mike McNamara, 67, a technical writer and business development consultant who lost a bid for county judge in 2000, and Libertarian Richard Perkins, 54.
Precinct 2 county commissioner
We endorsed Shea in the primary and do so again for the Nov. 4 election. Shea, whose campaign has focused on affordability issues, among other things, likely will be part of a new majority on budget and environmental matters. Like Eckhardt, she wants to install performance-based budgeting. The pair likely will find a third vote on the five-member court from Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican, who told us he supports performance-based budgeting.
Shea is expected to be a stronger voice on environmental matters than outgoing Precinct 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd, who is serving Eckhardt’s unfinished term. Precinct 2, which encompasses central and northwestern areas of Travis County, has its boundaries nearly entirely within the city of Austin. Among the issues that weigh importantly in Precinct 2 is affordability, primarily high property taxes. But residents also are concerned with mobility and environmental issues and economic development, education and roads. As we’ve noted before, Shea is a seasoned activist for those causes.
A former Austin City Council member in the 1990s, Shea helped found the Save Our Springs Coalition, which is credited for passage of the SOS water quality protection ordinance. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2012 but became an effective voice in calling attention to city policies that are shifting more of the tax burden on to homeowners. She has done the same as a candidate for Precinct 2.
Shea, 59, cites the state’s broken appraisal system that is causing regular homeowners to pay an ever greater share of the property tax tab to make up for the ever decreasing share commercial property owners are paying. It’s a complex situation that requires a state legislative fix. But Shea has proposed some steps to address it locally through a legal challenge of the county’s commercial property roll or by awarding county homeowners a larger homestead exemption.
She faces Republican Raymond Frank, 89, who was Travis County sheriff from 1973 to 1980, and Libertarian Steven Haskett, 57.
Early voting is underway and continues through Oct. 31.
To read previous Viewpoints endorsements, find additional election information and search a City Council candidate database featuring video profiles, go to statesman.com/elections.