Travis County commissioners consider cost of public defender’s office in light of revenue caps

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After more than seven months of development, a plan to create a public defender’s office in Travis County is coming up against state lawmakers’ pledge to pass property tax revenue caps.

“Unfortunately in this state and all across the South—all across the country, actually—you only get the justice you can afford,” said Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who represents Precinct 1, at an April 30 meeting.

The county plans to apply for a state grant that would cover around half of the costs of a public defender’s office over four years, up to $20.3 million. The deadline for the grant application is May 10.

If the county is awarded the grant, however, it will assume full financial responsibility for the office when the grant runs out.

Starting in fiscal year 2024, the Travis County Commissioners Court would need to fund the office, which would cost $10.1 million annually, according to an analysis submitted to commissioners April 18 by Katie Petersen, senior planning and budget analyst for Travis County.

“Unfortunately, the timing is a little bit of a challenge dealing with revenue caps,” Budget Director Travis Gatlin said.

State lawmakers in both chambers of the Legislature have made property tax reform a key priority this session.

Senate Bill 2 passed April 15 and restricts local governments—including counties—from increasing their property tax revenue by more than 3.5% year-over-year. The House considered its version of the bill April 30 but has not yet voted on it.

“There is about to be a day of reckoning with budgets,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who represents Precinct 3.

Despite uncertainty about the county’s ability to fund future projects, most members of the Commissioners Court remain committed to creating a public defender’s office.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, we figure out the formula, and we figure out the particulars as we go,” Travillion said. “But I think it is critical and important to build this system with these resources, and it is a little embarrassing to be the largest metropolitan area in the entire country that has not figured out that we need to do this.”

Commissioner Margaret Gomez, who represents Precinct 4, also supports funding the new office, although she acknowledged that doing so would likely require cutting funding for other programs.

“Let’s get tough, and let’s make some cuts to make room for it,” she said.

The state of Texas mandates counties provide defense for indigent defendants—those who are unable to afford a private attorney—but provides little funding for them to do so.

On average, the state provides around 13% of counties’ indigent defense budgets, according to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

In Travis County, however, the state funded only 5% of indigent defense costs in FY 2018, per Petersen’s analysis.

The grant, which is awarded by the TIDC, would significantly increase the state’s contribution to indigent defense spending in Travis County, if only for a four-year period.

“I do not want to leave $20 million of state money on the table,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “We can definitely use that money.”

The Commissioners Court will vote on the final grant application May 7.

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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