Commissioners were seeking to set a budget for the Short Fiscal Year (SFY) 2022 which will run from March to September, allowing the county to shift to planning budgets based on a fiscal year that begins each October.
The $1.3 billion for SFY 2022 and the $2.2 billion plan for the following full year prepared by county administrator David Berry added funds to law enforcement and included a 2 percent pay increase for all county employees. The plan, however, only funded 18 percent of the requests that came from traditional law enforcement, consisting of the sheriff, the eight county constables, the district attorney’s office, and the fire marshal.
Following the publication of Berry’s proposed budget last week, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) lambasted the proposal as “irresponsible and unacceptable during a crime pandemic.”
Both Ramsey and Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) submitted alternate budget proposals that would meet requests for law enforcement while cutting expenditures and positions in other departments.
Ramsey’s proposal added 500 law enforcement positions including 275 patrol officers, while cutting funds for bureaucracy and other departments including legislative relations, a commissioners court analyst, the Justice Administration Department, and the appraisal district — which he noted had increased their budget by 25 percent.
He proposed cutting funds for a health department program that would send out social workers in lieu of police officers, and $1.2 million for the community services department for a veteran’s program that had been moved to another department.
Ramsey and Cagle also proposed cuts to the elections administrator’s office, which was created in 2020 when Democrats on the commissioners court voted to take administration of elections away from the elected county clerk and elected voter registrar.
“We were promised when we would get an elections administrator, efficiencies would improve when we took it away from two duly elected officials,” said Ramsey who noted the county was instead spending far more on elections.
Cagle seconded Ramsey’s proposal and moved his own saying the budget needed to reflect the needs and desires of taxpayers.
“The things that we hear in the streets is that they desire to have the crime problem solved and that they do not want to have their taxes increased,” said Cagle. “They have tightened their belt, and they want us, who are the tax spenders, to do the same.”
Cagle said he used the 2018 county budget as a benchmark and incorporated requests from law enforcement to create his proposal, which returned focus to basic services.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo called proposals from Ramsey and Cagle “dystopian,” and said they would cut 1,000 jobs from other departments and jeopardize many of the programs administered by the public health department.
Ramsey responded that his proposal cut 362 jobs, 300 of which were not even filled, and so only 62 non-law enforcement jobs would be cut while adding personnel to traditional law enforcement operations.
“When we have 600 murders last year, our top three priorities are crime, crime, and crime,” said Ramsey.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) complained that because of Republican opposition to tax increases and preference for tax cuts, the county had $200,000 million less this year than they might have otherwise. He also lamented a state law passed in 2019 that restricted the amount the county could increase taxes without voter approval.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) offered an amendment to instruct the county administrator to craft a plan for giving all the sheriff’s deputies and constable deputies, excluding ranking officers, a raise of 3 percent. To do so, Garcia proposed using road bond funds, effectively borrowing to provide the salary supplements through Fiscal Year 2022.
Garcia said his plan would cost $4.1 million in the SFY and another $7 million in the following full year.
In a press conference Monday with Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), county Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget would continue the county’s commitment to public health and public safety.
“Violent gun-related crime in Harris County and across the United States, particularly in metropolitan areas, is spiking,” said Hidalgo. “And we all have a responsibility to lean in and do what we can to tackle it.”
Hidalgo said more traditional policies fail to address root causes, and that the county needed to address “weapons of war” in the community. She highlighted programs that added streetlights, trees, and sidewalks while tearing down vacant buildings, and also cited efforts to address the court backlog, programs for violence interruption, and mental health programs.
In the county administrator’s budget, Hidalgo also noted there was funding for 400 new vehicles, and for additional personnel at the jail, the courts, and the criminal investigations bureau.
“70 percent of the new budget is for Justice and safety initiatives,” said Hidalgo.
Following the budget vote, Ramsey lamented the lack of commitment to funding law enforcement needs and added, “It’s also disturbing that they approved to borrow money from infrastructure bonds to fund salary increases for law enforcement.”
“Not only does that impact our funding for infrastructure projects, but it’s an inappropriate use and unsustainable source of funds.”
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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.