The Austin American Statesman Endorses Sarah!

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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.

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