What does a county judge do in Texas? Spoiler alert: there is no deck.

When you think of a judge, many things probably come to mind. The blow of the gavel. Long, flowing tunics. Maybe one of those people from The Voice. They come in all shapes and sizes.

There are judges in every county in Texas. But in each county in Texas there is only one county judge.

This judge is a holdover from the frontier colonial government that has evolved in different ways in different corners of the state. They don’t preside over court cases like a Supreme Court justice or Judge Judy. And the position is arguably not as prominent as that of mayor or governor. But they have a lot of power, so here we explain what they do.

What is the job of a county judge?

The county judge is practically the mayor’s counterpart. They facilitate county government in the same way that a mayor runs city government. They coordinate emergency response in times of trouble. They collect taxes.

They don’t have a mallet. I’m sorry. They cannot preside over a court, but can marry someone

Travis County Judge Andy Brown has been at the top of county government since 2020. He presides over Travis County Commissioners Court meetings most Tuesdays and Thursdays.

He helps craft the county’s budget, which is comparatively smaller than that of the city of Austin. The city of Austin’s budget was more than $5 billion last year, compared to Travis County’s, which was $1.3 billion..

And he, along with the commissioners, set a property tax rate for the county, as does the city, although the city’s is also higher.

So the position is quite similar to that of a mayor?

Well, no.

The county has some responsibilities that the city doesn’t necessarily have to deal with. That is, Judge Brown is a kind of contact person for other governments: federal, state and local.

Brown says the pandemic illustrated this. Depending on state law, it could issue disaster declarations, which allow a jurisdiction to request financial assistance or resources or even disaster response.

But the governor also has that power. During COVID, Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders replaced Brown’s, while Brown’s ordered the city of Austin’s in that layered hierarchy, Brown said.

“In COVID, there was this strange interaction between the governor and I where I was ordering things and (then-Mayor of Austin), Adler, at the time was ordering things about trying to keep people healthy and the governor didn’t agree “, said. “So he sued me twice saying he didn’t have the power to do the things he was trying to do. So there’s an interesting dynamic.”

Unlike Austin’s mayor, county judge is a partisan position. Brown is a Democrat, Abbott is a Republican, so there is a bit of politics to play in the role.

What other responsibilities does this judge have?

Well, the biggest liability in Travis County, at least from a budget standpoint, is the county jail, Brown said.

“Our jail is currently the largest spending item in county government, and it is also the largest mental health facility in the county,” he said. “Both of those things are not excellent.”

And that’s part of the reason he ran for this position. He wanted to build what’s called a diversion center, a place where people with unmet mental health needs can go, instead of a jail. His effort will require some political wrangling. But it also requires a lot of coordination with federal, state and local governments.

But unlike COVID, Brown hopes the diversion center will be one of the rare issues that unites the local Democrats and Republicans who control the Legislature. Keeping people locked up is expensive, Brown said, so reducing the prison population could appeal to the typically budget-conscious Republican Party.

“It’s, again, one of those things where everyone from me to the Texas Legislature… we all agree that this is something we need to do,” he said. “And I think we need to build the gold standard of a diversion center here in Travis County because it affects a lot of things.”

Part of that will require some marshalling of federal, state and local resources. In a nutshell, that’s what a county judge does: he coordinates resources and helps manage implementation.

That job is trickier in some smaller, rural Texas counties without the fiscal wealth of larger ones.