Response to the Austin American Statesman Editorial of August 2, 2010

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I fully support the press questioning the value taxpayers receive for the salaries county commissioners are paid.  As you report in your editorial of August 2, the Commissioners Court voted a 2.5% increase to the ceiling of salaries available to the elected officials of Travis County (excluding district judges who are paid by the State).  This 2.5% increase results in a $92,362 salary ceiling for county commissioners.  Any of the 48 elected officials in Travis County may make their own salary determinations within the salary ceiling provided.  For instance, I have taken less salary than was budgeted all four years I have been in office and I have reduced my office expenses in FY 10 and expect to keep them at the reduced level for FY 11.

My salary for the last four years is as follows (the amount in parenthesis is what was budgeted):

FY 08 $83,716 ($87,484)

FY 09 $86,646 ($90,109)

FY 10 $86,646 ($90,109)

FY 11 $88,812 ($92,362)

Certainly one can argue, as you do in the August 2 editorial, that county commissioners are paid too much.  As illustrated above, I agree the budgeted salary is too high for me and I therefore take less.  But the basis for your argument contains some factual inaccuracies.  First, you state that the “county commissioners jurisdiction has been slowly eroded by city annexations.”  Actually, the Commissioners Court’s geographic jurisdiction (all of Travis County) and the subject matter jurisdiction (roughly speaking – jails, courts, transportation and social services) remains the same, irrespective of annexation.  Unlike municipal government, county government is an arm of the State and so we must address whatever the State requires of us.  With increased population and urbanization, these duties become more complicated and interrelated.  We welcome participation by municipalities in many of our duties.  But, county government stands alone as the entity to knit together regional efforts to provide consistency of government services and quality of life for all residents, whether living inside or outside the boundaries of our 19 municipalities.

Second, you point out that there are other elected officials in Travis County with substantial responsibility for providing county governmental services.  While it is true the other 43 elected positions within the County are responsible for the direct provision of services, these officials and their organizations are akin to state agencies while the Commissioners Court functions as both the Legislature and Chief Executive of county governance.  The Commissioners Court alone has the authority and responsibility to establish countywide policies, enter into contracts (other elected officials may not bind the county contractually), bring or defend against legal actions on behalf of the county (the DA and CA bring criminal actions on behalf of the state, the CA brings civil actions only at the behest of the Commissioners Court), issue debt and, as you acknowledge, set the county budget and tax rate.  One might also describe us as functioning like a combined City Manager and City Council.

Third, you state we have a county administrator.  While I feel a county administrator position would be a positive development, we do not have any such position.  We have five excellent executive managers who function similarly to assistant city managers with designated areas of expertise and responsibilities.  All five executive managers report to and are supervised by the full Commissioners Court.  These managers have substantial authority, but the Commissioners Court bears ultimate responsibility for their success or failure.  One such failure was the Perez/Smith debacle.  However, I do not have the space to enumerate the myriad successes of our remaining executive managers (preserving jobs, benefits and county services during an economic downturn; defending and restoring Hamilton Pool after it was polluted by developers; facilitating unprecedented collaboration among the 13 emergency services districts; developing cutting edge metrics to evaluate civil and criminal justice programs; managing early childhood intervention, workforce training, emergency assistance programs, and the list goes on).  I concede that we commissioners do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants.

I hope my efforts on the Court as both legislator and executive adequately empower my fellow 43 elected County officials, our talented managers and my colleagues among the municipalities to provide quality governance at a reasonable price for all residents of the County.

-SE

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