Travis County institutes hiring freeze amid considerations to mitigate budget impacts from coronavirus

A photo of the Travis County government building
Travis County commissioners voted to institute a hiring freeze April 14. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

Travis County commissioners voted to institute a hiring freeze April 14. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted April 14 to institute a hiring freeze for most jobs under the umbrella of Travis County government in an effort to mitigate the financial hit of the coronavirus—which is projected by county staff to be at least $25.7 million in the current fiscal year.

“We think it’s prudent at this point,” Travis County Executive Jessica Rio said of the hiring freeze in a report to the court. “Some of these strategies may need to be continued into [FY 2020-21], but we honestly just don’t know yet.”

According to county planning and budget staff, the freeze will prevent Travis County from bringing on around 51 new employees each month, for a projected cost savings of around $4.7 million during FY 2019-20. Some new hires may still be allowed, including essential positions for pandemic response.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voted against the measure, saying he favored restricting all county hires.

“I don’t think we’ve gone far enough at all, because I think that COVID-19 is going to be very, very crippling to this community, which means it is going to be very, very crippling to government,” Daugherty said.

Other commissioners, as well as Travis County Judge Sara Eckhardt, felt the possibility to allow certain hires could be important as the county adjusts to the ongoing crisis.

“COVID-19, in my experience, has been kind of like teaching my son to drive stick,” Eckhardt said. “We’re understanding the difference between the clutch and the gas, and how we can keep the car going while being as safe as possible. It’s like we are learning to drive a stickshift on a hill.”

Moving forward, the county will also seek areas to reduce operating expenses. Staff pointed to $5.7 million being funneled to the new Travis County Public Defender’s Office as a possible area for cuts, as well $1.6 million allocated for new county parks.

As the county prepares the budget for FY 2020-21, COVID-19 impacts are top of mind, according to staff, who offered a wide range for projected revenue impacts for the coming fiscal year.

“The [FY 2020-21] Preliminary Budget will look significantly different than what was discussed with the Commissioners Court in February due to the impact of COVID-19,” planning and budget staff wrote in a prepared brief for the court’s April 14 meeting.

Commissioners also discussed how they would use $54 million delivered through the federal government's CARES Act, which is slated to be received by the end of April. The court voted to use the funds to target small-business relief for businesses that are outside the incorporated city limits of Austin and thus will not receive support from the city of Austin’s CARES Act funds.
By Olivia Aldridge

Multi-Platform Journalist

Olivia hosts and produces Community Impact Newspaper's podcasts, The Austin Breakdown, The Houston Breakdown and The DFW Breakdown. She launched the podcasts after nearly three years as a reporter for the newspaper, covering public health, business, development and Travis County government for the Central Austin edition. Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas.