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County Approves Budget, Restores Jail Visitations

The County Commissioners approved a 2016 budget and decided to restore in-person jail visitations.

From the Austin Monitor: On the eve of Fiscal New Year’s Eve, Travis County commissioners voted to adopt a brand-new budget that will keep the lights on through 2016. Along the way, they managed to inject some last-minute drama into the proceedings by restoring in-person visitations at county jail facilities.

For weeks, it appeared that, unlike City Council’s recent experience, the county’s proposed $951 million budget would face little political resistance on its way to final approval. During budget discussions at regular meetings over the summer, public angst over the budget process was nonexistent, and posturing on the dais was kept to a minimum.

Indeed, the most significant public engagement during the budget process came last week at the first of two special hearings on the proposed tax rate. But instead of raising hackles about high taxes, the handful of speakers at the hearing urged the commissioners to restore in-person visits for inmates at county jails. Under the current policy enacted by Sheriff Greg Hamilton, most inmates can interact with friends and family only remotely through a video chat interface.

Last week’s effort, organized by the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership, turned out to be a testament to the power of democratic participation. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt responded to their activism by putting the issue on Tuesday’s agenda, and staff came prepared with two options for covering the cost of restoring in-person visits.

The one that commissioners ultimately approved unanimously will draw $417,775 from the Sheriff’s Office’s overtime reserve. That money will create 14 new full-time positions to staff the face-to-face visits. The plan also earmarks another $50,141 to create two new positions at the court’s discretion.

The Sheriff’s Office will start filling those jobs as early as January, and the in-person visits will resume by April.

“At the end of the day, we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” Lauren Johnson of Grassroots Leadership told the Austin Monitor. But, she added, Travis isn’t the only county keeping its inmates from sharing face-to-face contact with loved ones. “We’ll spend the day celebrating and then get back to work tomorrow to figure out which county we go to next.”

As for the county commissioners, they still had one more budget to approve on Tuesday, and with it came a bit more public friction.

Several residents raised concerns about Central Health, taking aim at the medical district’s transparency.

Mary Arnold, a long-time activist, told the commissioners that she had looked at Central Health’s budget presentation and couldn’t make sense of it. “I’m concerned about some of the ways that money is being hidden under little baskets, and you never know where it’s going to show up,” Arnold said.

In the end, the commissioners approved Central Health’s tax rate of 11.78 cents per $100 of taxable value and a $296 million budget, but only after vowing to look into the prevailing concerns and hold the district accountable.

Should the commissioners approve the proposed county tax rate next week of 41.69 cents per $100 of taxable value, the owner of the average home of $300,032 will save 79 cents.