Earlier this week, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar issued a letter stating that due to a reduction in funds for constables, Harris County would be subject to new state law known as Senate Bill (SB) 23 that penalizes efforts to “defund” police.
While Hegar’s letter stemmed from formal complaints from Constables Mark Herman (Pct. 4) and Ted Heap (Pct. 5), former commissioner and constable Steve Radack on Wednesday sent a letter to Kevin Masters of the governor’s Public Safety Office alleging that the county has reduced funding for all eight constables’ offices as well as the district attorney’s, fire marshal’s, and sheriff’s offices.
The county has increased the basic budget allocations for constables and other departments between 2022 and 2023. But last year, under a recommendation from County Administrator David Berry, commissioners voted to remove so-called “rollover funds” from law enforcement departments.
Under previous county practice, if a department had not spent funds by a year-end date, those funds were permitted to roll over to the next year. According to the official complaint filed by Herman, constables required this flexibility to accommodate unexpected expenditures in officer training and equipment or to respond to new circumstances with crime fighting initiatives.
A letter sent to Berry signed by all eight constables on April 19, 2022 states the county’s new budget practices are using projected but not actual data, often resulting in confusion over whether a department is within budget parameters. The constables also noted that rollover funds were part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget formally approved by commissioners court.
Documentation provided to the governor and comptroller, and undisputed by the county, shows that Herman’s office lost $199,387 in rollover funds. According to an April 27, 2022 letter from Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos, the total amount of rollover funds taken from all eight constables amounts to $3,070,685.
In the case of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO), rollover funds were “saved” to coincide with law school graduations for hiring new assistant district attorneys. After losing these funds last year, District Attorney Kim Ogg and members of her staff repeatedly attended commissioners court to urge returning the amounts, arguing that taking away the rollover funds constituted “defunding law enforcement.”
At the time, Jonathan Fombonne of the county attorney’s office said the district attorney’s office was not really a law enforcement agency and therefore efforts to reduce the HCDAO budget would not lead to repercussions under SB 23.
Although commissioners voted 4 to 0 to appropriate $7.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to cover expenses previously covered by rollover dollars, none of those funds have yet been released to HCDAO. However, the budget office did permit a separate allowance of $790,000 to pay for overtime for employees working after hours to address the criminal case backlog.
While Berry defended the elimination of permitting rollover funds as effective budgeting practice, the proposed budget for FY 2023 has retained such funds for the county commissioners and County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office.
According to the proposal, Hidalgo’s office will have a carryover fund balance of $552,048, giving her a FY 2023 budget of $10.6 million. The highest carryover amount, just over $34 million, will be allotted to the district of Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1).
In 2018, Hidalgo’s predecessor County Judge Ed Emmett had a carryover of zero dollars and a total budget of $7.7 million.
Radack’s request does not provide backup documentation, but may have the effect of expanding the investigation beyond constable Precincts 4 and 5.
Hegar’s official letter states that Harris County will need voter approval to adopt the proposed FY 2023 budget or will be required to adopt a no-new-revenue tax rate for the coming cycle.
On Thursday, Hidalgo held a press conference announcing her plan to spend $14.3 million in ARPA funds on a mental health initiative, during which she warned punishment under SB 23 would prevent shifting costs for programs to county taxpayers later.
“These are initiatives we’re doing with American Rescue Plan dollars, one-time funds,” said Hidalgo. “But the idea would be to try to continue some of them with county funds. There is no way we could do that if the attempt by the state to defund Harris County succeeds.”
The county’s proposed FY 2023 budget includes using a total of $351.3 million in ARPA funds across 18 categories, with $47.3 million, or about 15 percent, going to “Justice and Public Safety.” That category includes a wide array of programs and services outside of the traditional definitions of law enforcement.
Justice and safety goals listed by the county include reducing violent crime, reducing unnecessary exposure to the criminal justice system, and reducing racial and economic bias within the criminal justice system. For the latter category, the county will spend $210,000 for an equity analysis of the juvenile probation department and $2.3 million for “initiatives to focus on increasing appearance rates for defendants in Misdemeanor Courts.”
Harris County has grappled with rising violent crime and homicide rates since 2019. That year, Radack lambasted Hidalgo for declining to support Ogg’s request for additional prosecutors, saying, “You don’t have a problem doubling the budget of the public defender, but when it comes to protecting law and order, you have a real problem. And I hope one day you will look up and look in the mirror and think about all these people that are being killed, injured, raped, suffering.”
Hidalgo, up for re-election this year, has accused Ogg of “political theater” over her appearances at commissioners court. When state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) decried the county for defunding law enforcement, Hidalgo compared him to “Trump sycophants.”
Alexandra del Moral Mealer, the Republican nominee for county judge, responded to this week’s events by saying, “Whether we want to continue to play semantics about whether Judge Lina Hidalgo has defunded police, it is clear her administration has led an effort to constrain law enforcement during an unprecedented crime wave.”
A copy of Herman’s complaint to the governor can be found below.
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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.