“The defunding of law enforcement in Harris County must stop,” Ogg told the commissioners court.
Ogg had placed an item on the public agenda requesting an additional $6.2 million to “fully fund all previously approved positions,” and to “return the budget maximums for items zeroed out by the budget office.”
Although in February commissioners had approved additional funding for 25 more prosecutors and one victims assistance coordinator, Ogg told the court that the county’s new Management and Budget Office under the supervision of county administrator David Berry had quietly removed funding for multiple positions in the district attorney’s office (DAO).
Ogg also lambasted the county for taking so-called rollover funds from county law enforcement offices last year.
“The defunding began with the management and budget office’s seizure of $4.9 million in 2021 rollover funds and has been compounded by the management-budget office’s failure to provide funds this governmental body voted on in February,” said Ogg.
According to backup documentation for Ogg’s requested funds, the budget office took the $4.9 million from the DAO although those funds were being used for 16 positions.
As a result, Ogg said she had no current funding for 16 employees who were to process more than 11,000 backlogged body-worn camera videos from the sheriff’s office and the Houston Police Department. She also said $786,094 commissioners had approved for salary increases for misdemeanor prosecutors had been reduced to $581,538, and that 50 open attorney and support staff positions had been defunded.
Berry and the county’s recently hired executive director of the Office of Management and Budget, Daniel Ramos, vigorously pushed back on Ogg’s characterization of the budget disagreements.
Ramos, who until last month served as the deputy chief administrative officer for the City of Baltimore, which dramatically cut its police budget in 2020, told commissioners that the DAO’s budget had been increased in recent years and that 34 of 89 DAO positions funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) were vacant.
“There’s been no defunding, or systematic defunding of the district attorney’s office,” said Ramos. “We have made, as a jurisdiction, historic investments, not just [for] the district attorney, but in the justice system overall.”
In her opening comments, Ogg said she had never met Ramos and that he had not met with her staff to review budget concerns.
Berry told commissioners the DAO budget had increased by $12 million in the past two years and $29 million over the past seven years.
Regarding the ARPA, Ogg and her chief of staff Vivan King explained that it was difficult to fill attorney positions on a temporary basis since most applicants were seeking permanent positions. Ramos acknowledged that 24 of the unfilled ARPA positions were for attorneys.
“No one is going to quit their job, close their businesses for two years and try cases,” said King.
Ogg also expressed frustration over the county’s relationship with PFM Consulting Group, which she said the county was paying $7.2 million for a study that had to be completed before law enforcement agencies could increase funding.
“Their study is being prepared by David Eichenthal, the CEO of PFM and the author of ‘The Fiscal Case for Defunding the police,’” said Ogg. “They’ve turned the henhouse over to the foxes.”
Jonathan Fombonne of the county attorney’s office argued that the DAO was not really a law enforcement agency and therefore efforts to reduce the DAO budget would not lead to repercussions under new state law that requires local governments to obtain voter approval before reducing funding for law enforcement agencies.
Ogg emphatically countered Fombonne’s characterization by introducing herself as the county’s top law enforcement officer and saying, “I wake to a new world with the county attorney’s office’s determination that we are not a law enforcement agency.”
Although Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) motioned to approve Ogg’s requested increase, in the face of conflicting information from the county administrator, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) sought to delay the item for a few weeks for further consideration.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) referred to the DAO request as a part of the “political season,” and Garcia motioned to “direct the office of management and budget to ensure that all approved appropriations are available for the district attorney’s use and that they have flexibility in filling positions within their budget and ensure that the pay raises that have been voted on have been implemented.”
The substitute motion passed 3 to 2 along party lines.
Despite protests from the county’s elected constables and members of the public, in July 2021 commissioners also approved taking $20 million in rollover funds from the county’s eight constables’ offices.
Then in February of 2022, under recommendations from Berry commissioners voted 3 to 2 to only fund 18 percent of the requests made by law enforcement. At that time, Ogg had requested 82 additional prosecutors and 43 support staff, but only 25 prosecutors and one support staff were approved by Berry and the commissioners court vote.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.