The county’s commissioners court took up the issue during a special meeting Wednesday, and following an executive session closed to the public, voted 3 to 1 to approve the hiring of law firms Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP. The latter includes former Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.
The cost to taxpayers for hiring the firms was not provided.
Last week, state Comptroller Glen Hegar issued a letter notifying Gov. Greg Abbott and county Judge Lina Hidalgo that the county appeared to have reduced funding for law enforcement when clawing back more than $3 million in rollover funds from the eight constables’ offices.
Hegar’s determination stemmed from a complaint filed by Constables Mark Herman (Pct. 4) and Ted Heap (Pct. 5), including a letter from the county’s Budget Management Director Daniel Ramos detailing the amounts of rollover funds taken from all eight constables.
Although commissioners approved a budget including the rollover funds and held hearings last March, in the following month, the county reversed course.
“The underlying case is very simple,” Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) told The Texan. “In March the county had budget hearings that included the savings rolled over, and then in April they took those savings accounts away.”
“If I came into your bank account on the 31st of the month and said, ‘Oh look, you’ve got savings,’ and then I nabbed it from you before all your bills were due on the 1st, you would think that was unfair when it came time to pay your bills.”
Due to the reductions, Hegar informed the county that they were in violation of Senate Bill (SB) 23 and that unless the proposed Fiscal Year 2023 budget is revised or approved by voters, “the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate.”
Last week, former commissioner and constable Steve Radack sent another letter to the governor’s Public Safety Office alleging that the county had reduced funding for all eight constables’ offices as well as the district attorney’s, fire marshal’s, and sheriff’s offices.
Herman told The Texan that he and Heap had met with county officials last Friday and again on Monday and had been working towards an agreement.
“If the county cannot adopt a budget, my department stands to lose $7.5 million and I may have to lay off as many as 70 deputies,” said Herman. “The comptroller gave us room to resolve the issue locally and we were working towards that.”
“It’s not surprising though that we were working on a deal, and they suddenly went from one direction to another,” he added.
After voting to move forward with a legal challenge Hidalgo posted on social media that “the only ones trying to defund safety in our county are the Governor and his allies.”
During the public portion of Wednesday’s meeting, April Aguirre, the aunt of 9-year-old Arlene Alvarez shot to death in Harris County last year, spoke to commissioners and played audio of Hidalgo’s comments on rollover funds in 2019.
“I would hate to punish the departments that have been saving as opposed to forcing themselves to spend down at the end of the year, so I would fundamentally want to preserve that and not punish folks who have been able to make savings,” said Hidalgo.
Hidalgo, who along with all four commissioners will keep rollover funds in the proposed budget, said those comments were “taken very much out of context.”
In addition to approving legal action against the state, the commissioners court approved an expenditure of $25.7 million to move some inmates of the Harris County Jail to the Giles Dalby Correctional Facility in Post, Texas.
The county’s jail is near capacity with a population of 9,975 as of August 30. More than 8,155 are pre-trial defendants held for felony offenses or violent misdemeanor charges, as the county’s criminal case backlog still tops 135,000 cases.
Texas Civil Rights Corps attorney Elizabeth Rossi, who represents plaintiffs suing the county over felony bail, also addressed commissioners Wednesday in opposition to moving inmates. She said commissioners should instead pressure the sheriff’s office to stop making “unnecessary low-level arrests” and the district attorney’s office to stop prosecuting so many cases. If law enforcement agencies would not comply, Rossi said their funding should be reduced by the county.
Earlier this year, commissioners approved a budget that only included 18 percent of funding requests from law enforcement.
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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.