Travis County works toward full cost-recovery model, despite challenges

Travis County commissioners approved an agreement with Hays County to house some of Hays County's inmates temporarily at an Aug. 27 meeting.

Travis County commissioners approved an agreement with Hays County to house some of Hays County's inmates temporarily at an Aug. 27 meeting.

In an effort to cut costs in advance of the property tax revenue cap taking effect next year, Travis County commissioners have redoubled their efforts to recover costs for services the county provides.

Doing so, however, has not been easy for commissioners or county residents.

"We're developing a habit for full-cost recovery," County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at an Aug. 27 meeting of the Commissioners Court.

In developing that habit, she added, commissioners will have to refine their tolerances and priorities.

Bulk water services

After voting unanimously to raise the price of bulk water from $0.25 per 100 gallons to $12.28 per 100 gallons—in keeping with the cost of providing the service—at an Aug. 13 meeting, commissioners heard from residents who were affected by the decision.

Some live in subdivisions such as Los Lomitas, in southeast Travis County, that were built without water lines.

"I couldn't sleep the first night after getting this [news]," Travis County resident Antonio Sanchez said through an interpreter at an Aug. 27 Commissioners Court meeting.

Sanchez said his family uses between 900 and 1,200 gallons a week, which is sourced from a bulk water filling station near Hwy. 183 and the Colorado River, and he cannot afford the new price.

"Water is necessary for survival," Sanchez said. "It's not a luxury item that we're trying to obtain."

Rose Vargas, another Travis County resident, raised similar concerns. Through an interpreter, she said her family uses around 2,000 gallons a week, in part to care for cattle and other animals on their land.

"I'm willing to negotiate the price, and I know it shouldn't be free, but from $5 to $250 [a week] seems insurmountable," Vargas said.

Eckhardt directed concerned residents to speak to members of the transportation and natural resources department in the hope of finding a solution.

Jail resources

At the same Aug. 27 meeting, commissioners considered—and ultimately approved—an interlocal agreement with neighboring Hays County to house overflow inmates temporarily. Hays County is building a new jail facility, which is expected to open in March.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office worked with Hays County to develop an agreement that will incur no costs for Travis County.

In an Aug. 9 letter to commissioners, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said there are empty units available to house overflow inmates. Hays County, per the agreement, will provide transportation and any non-routine or off-site health care services.

Travis County will receive a flat daily amount to cover the costs of housing up to 50 inmates.

However, TCSO estimated this cost at $2,000—or $40 per inmate per day—while the county's budget office estimated it to be closer to $5,500—or $110 per inmate per day—due to higher operating costs locally.

"We are running a jail, whether we help our neighbors to the south out or not," said TCSO Major Wes Priddy, urging commissioners to sign off on a lower cost for Hays County.

During Austin's boil-water notice last October, Hays County was "there for us," Priddy said, and provided a clean water supply for the Travis County jail.

"Good neighbors don't count every cup of sugar," Eckhardt said, but she added that the county should be "clear-eyed" about the costs of reopening a jail unit that has been out of operation.

Ultimately, commissioners voted unanimously to sign off on the agreement at a daily rate of $3,500—or $70 per inmate per day—with a plan to reconsider it in five months.

Shelter safety

A third cost-recovery agenda item came up at the Aug. 27 meeting: updating a contract between the county and the SAFE Alliance—a local nonprofit that works with survivors of child abuse, sexual assault, trafficking and domestic violence—to provide security services at a new facility.

Commissioners had the option of modifying the contract to cover direct costs—$207,990 charged to SAFE—or to cover direct costs plus indirect costs, up to $283,241.

County staff, including the Precinct 5 constable, recommended charging SAFE only for the direct costs, which diverges from the county's transition to a full cost-recovery model.

"SAFE provides countless services directly to Travis County, including providing valuable advocates in numerous Travis County courtrooms," Precinct 5 Constable Carlos B. Lopez wrote in an Aug. 20 memo to commissioners.

Commissioners settled on a contract in between the two extremes, worth about $214,000, that covered direct costs and some indirect ones.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who represents Precinct 3, reiterated a common refrain of his, that in light of the revenue cap the court will have to make hard decisions—and make clear their reasons for doing so.

"It's sending a message that we're being a little inconsistent," he said about the court's votes Aug. 27. "Either you've got a neighbor south that needs your help or you've got a nonprofit. ... It looks a little ad hoc-ish."


By 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.


Valentina’s offers breakfast and lunch tacos as well as barbecue. (Courtesy Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ)
South Austin's Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ will move to Buda in next year

The business announced it will be moving within the next year.

Under the city of Austin's phased enforcement plan released May 10, citations at public encampments will begin in mid-June to be followed by arrests and clearances in July as necessary. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin's homeless ordinances back on books May 11, but arrests, camp clearings won't start until July

Austin announced a "phased process" to introduce Proposition B ordinances beginning with one month of outreach followed by one month of warnings and citations before arrests or clearances begin as necessary.

Pfizer vaccines could become available to kids 12 and up as soon as next week. (Courtesy Adobe Stock/Graphic by Justin Howell/Community Impact Newspaper)
FDA expands Pfizer vaccine authorization to children ages 12 to 15 years old

This is the first time people under the age of 16 have been granted access to a coronavirus vaccine.

Butler Park Pitch & Putt reopened to the public in April. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Butler Park Pitch & Putt reopens in Austin; turf fields open in Pflugerville and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

I-35 traffic
State now accepting public input on North Austin I-35 overhaul project

The public now has the ability to review and provide feedback on planning materials for a $400 million I-35 project.

Austin Bouldering Project currently operates a gym on Springdale Road in Austin. (Courtesy Austin Bouldering Project)
Local rock-climbing gym to open new location in South Austin this fall

The new gym will have comparable offerings to the original in East Austin.

Tents have become a common sight throughout Austin including along Cesar Chavez Street downtown, but with the passage of Proposition B the city may now consider moving unsheltered homeless individuals to designated sites. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Hall notebook: Designated campsites for the homeless are back on the table

City staff had previously dismissed developing official camping locations in 2019, but new directives from City Council this week could revive the concept in Austin.

Wag-A-Bag is headquartered in Round Rock. (Megan Cardona/Community Impact Newspaper)
Wag-A-Bag to operate under new ownership, name; Austin, TxDOT at odds over I-35 overhaul; and more top Central Texas news

Read the most popular business and community news from the past week from the Austin area.

Stephanie Hayden-Howard will become an assistant city manager in Austin on May 10. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Role changes coming for health officials leading Austin-Travis County COVID-19 efforts

Dr. Desmar Walkes will take over as Austin's next medical director and local health authority as Dr. Mark Escott and Stephanie Hayden-Howard transition to new roles with the city.

The brewery and kitchen‘s new spot will offer a larger indoor setting area than its original. (Courtesy Suds Monkey Brewing Co.)
Dripping Springs brewery relocates to new, expanded facility closer to Austin

Suds Monkey Brewing Co. opened in Dripping Springs in 2017.