Storey Cordelle was appointed chairman of the Travis Appraisal Review Board (ARB) June 1, 2020. After just six months in charge, Cordelle came under heavy criticism from the Travis Central Appraisal District's board of directors at its December 3, 2020, virtual meeting.
The main thrust of the criticism centered on costs that already exceeded the 2020 budget for ARB operations and on top of that Cordelle's request for an additional $88,425.
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Last week, data and analytics firm Unacast launched a social distancing scoreboard using public datasets as well as data from tens of millions of devices. The company, which is based in New York and Oslo, collects cell phone location data and sells its analysis to various industries. (The Washington Post called it "part of a shadowy world of location tracking.")
According to its analysis, Travis County has decreased average mobility—based on distance traveled—by between 55% and 70% and has decreased nonessential visits by more than 70%. As a result, on March 28 the company graded Travis County's response to the pandemic as an A-, second in the state only to Cameron County, and a higher score than Texas' overall C.
However, according to a March 26 pandemic modeling report from researchers at The University of Texas-Austin, nonhousehold contact needs to be reduced by 90% to "flatten the curve"—meaning the rate at which coronavirus cases hit their peak—enough to avoid overwhelming hospitals in Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays counties.
We still don't know to what extent local policies have limited the spread of this pandemic, and the city declined to provide an estimate on Thursday.
The UT report estimates that if schools remain closed and nonhousehold interactions are reduced by 50%, the Austin-Round Rock metro will see more than 1.56 million coronavirus cases—meaning 70% of its total population will contract COVID-19—and 6,317 deaths by Aug. 17 as hospitalizations and ventilator demands far outpace supply.
In contrast, continued school closures coupled with a reduction in nonhousehold interactions by 90% will lead to less than one-tenth the number of total cases—132,415, per the report—and a total death toll of 267 for the metro.
"The real take-home message is that it's going to take the whole community effort to really slow this spread and really prevent our community from having a crisis in health care," said Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology, statistics and data sciences who led the team of researchers, at a March 26 virtual press conference.
On alert for COVID-19 outbreak, Travis County makes 'extraordinary effort' to thin out jail population
Betty Lewis was already nervous about the new coronavirus outbreak when she got a phone call from the Travis County jail in mid-March.
Her son, 53-year-old Bryan, was sitting in jail on a misdemeanor after being accused of threatening to beat up someone during an argument five months earlier.
Not an insurmountable situation under normal circumstances, but Lewis was terrified that her son was locked up while the contagious new coronavirus was virtually clawing at the jailhouse doors.
"People were already dying [around the world], so that was a great fear," she said. "All you know is that your family member is enclosed with this situation that we have, and that's not a good thing."
In late March, Bryan joined the growing numbers of Travis County inmates released from the jail thanks to efforts by judges and county officials to reduce the inmate population and slow spread of the disease through the jail system.
Those moves have resulted in nearly 600 inmates released since Feb. 25 in Travis County, said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's Office.
The jail system, composed of the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle and the Travis County Jail downtown, has a capacity of 2,975, she said.
Some 26 inmates were in quarantine on Wednesday morning, many of whom are there because they refused to answer screening questions on intake, Dark said.
There were 63 newly booked inmates in single-cell isolation for 10-14 days as part of a new program begun this week to separate all new arrestees with or without symptoms to prevent new cases, she said.
There have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in either jail, as of Wednesday morning, Dark said.
Dark said the decline in population is a result of the "extraordinary effort" by jail officials, attorneys, judges and police that includes:
- Isolating every new accused offender booked into the jails
- Daily health screenings of employees, police, vendors and inmates coming into the jails
- Virtual video courtrooms created to speed up the adjudication of some cases and avoid coronavirus-related delays
- Banning in-person visits
- Prioritizing the adjudication or bonds of cases in which inmates are still in jail
- Quarantining of inmates being watched for virus symptoms
- Lowered bonds for low-risk people accused of nonviolent crimes, both misdemeanors and low-level felonies
- Fewer arrests on the street for nonviolent crimes
- Automatic release with no bail (personal bonds) for newly arrested people who come through Central Booking on certain nonviolent crimes, instead of routing them to a jail cell to wait for trial
- Daily review of felony cases by the prosecutors to determine if any of them are a good fit for bond or plea deals.
"Everybody is doing their part to avoid having COVID-19 coming into our jail," Dark said.
Human rights is certainly part of the equation when making these moves, but even more than that is the concern that an epidemic inside the jail will translate into explosive numbers outside the jail, said Claire Carter, Bryan's attorney.
In addition to the inmates currently in the Travis County system, the jail has nearly 1,000 staffers.
"They're going home to families, or they might be going to the grocery store on the way home, filling up their cars with gas," Carter said. "All the things the public is being told to be careful of."
Bryan, whose last name is not being used over fears his housing situation could be compromised, was released after using a pilot video-court program—designed in response to the outbreak—that allowed him to enter his plea of no contest within days of his arrest, Carter said. He was sentenced to time served and allowed to go home.
In other cases, personal recognizance bonds are automatic for people arrested on nonviolent charges after Travis County judges ordered them in late March.
That order only affects people who are arrested into Central Booking, not those already moving through the legal system. The latter cases are still decided on an individual basis. People doing time for convictions are not included in early release programs.
An executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday forbade the courts to release on personal bonds any accused offender—nonviolent or otherwise—who had been convicted in the past of a violent crime or the threat of violence.
The order, handed down in response to programs such those in Travis County, also included any inmate currently charged with similar crimes. It also stipulates that the order doesn't hinder any judge's ability to make individual decisions based on health or medical issues.
Some judges in Travis and other counties objected to the order, saying it hinders their ability to make case-by-case decisions, and vowed to continue to make those decisions regardless of Abbott's order.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in an interview Monday the order will change at least one thing: Travis County court officials will have to remove arrested people from the automatic personal bond program if there is any violence or threat of violence in their histories.
But otherwise, Moore, who said she spent hours on the phone Monday with judges and county officials discussing the order, said she doesn't anticipate the order will substantially change how Travis County is already handling accused offenders.
She also said that the jail population, at this point, is about as low as it can get, but that it's hard to say what will happen with the numbers going forward.
"We'll see how the judges step up and handle it, and if the jail dockets increase," she said. "Right now, it's too soon to tell."