“These men and women who wear the badge have not been properly resourced to do their job,” said Mealer at a press conference at the Harris County Deputies Organization (HCDO) headquarters Wednesday.
Standing alongside Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) and Precinct 2 commissioner candidate Jack Morman, Mealer called the increase an “immediate solution to an immediate problem” and accused current Harris County leadership of “sitting on their hands.”
Mealer’s proposal, supported by Cagle, Morman, and Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3), stems from the original funding request Sheriff Ed Gonzalez submitted to the county earlier this year that included a request for more than 1,000 additional employees.
Gonzalez had recommended adding 645 patrol officers, 150 investigators, 440 new detention officers, and various other department personnel, but County Administrator David Berry presented a budget that only included 18 percent of all law enforcement requests with no additional patrol officers for any department. Commissioners did include a proposal from Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) to provide a 3 percent raise to non-ranking sheriff’s deputies with funds borrowed from the county’s road bonds.
Later, the commissioners agreed to add some investigators and detention officers to assist with the troubled county jail, over which the HCDO has filed a federal lawsuit. But the proposed budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 will add a mere 10 patrol officers to the sheriff’s office and none to the eight constables’ offices.
Mealer said she estimated the cost per officer would be about $100,000 each, constituting about 5 percent of the county’s $2.2 billion budget; she pledged to add patrol officers to the constables as well as the sheriff’s department.
Constables Mark Herman, (Pct. 4) Ted Heap, (Pct. 5), and Phil Sandlin (Pct. 8) also attended in support of expanding resources to combat a crime wave that resulted in 632 murders last year.
While incumbent Judge Lina Hidalgo has touted increases in public safety spending that include installing streetlights, building sidewalks, providing Wi-Fi, and offering early childhood education initiatives, Mealer told The Texan that rising crime demands more immediate action.
“If someone is having a heart attack, you don’t tell them to eat their vegetables, you give CPR,” she said.
Mealer also accused Hidalgo of prioritizing “what national donors want to hear instead of solving kitchen table issues here in Harris County,” and took the incumbent to task for refusing a publicized debate hosted by Houston’s ABC 13.
“I understand you might be scared. If I had your record, I’d be scared too,” quipped Mealer.
Houston Police Officers Union President Doug Griffith explained that his organization had joined HCDO and other law enforcement associations in endorsing in county elections because of rising crime throughout the county.
“I was born and raised right here in North Shore…my parents still live there, I still have property there, and it has become a war zone,” said Griffith. “Right next to my parents’ house they’ve had two homicides in two weeks.”
Adding his name to law enforcement organizations, Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton said, “Public safety is absolutely, critically the most important thing to the citizens we serve.”
In response to questions about how the county would pay for additional officers, Mealer pointed to the expansion of administration at the expense of justice administration.
“We’ve seen this government prioritize the growth of the bureaucratic state over the residents of Harris County,” noting that Hidalgo had expanded county government to include early childhood education among other programs.
Cagle argued that by eliminating all the new bureaucracy created in the past three years the county could meet law enforcement needs and restore the public contingency fund for emergency needs.
Under Hidalgo’s leadership, the county has created a new Justice Administration Department, a county administrator with staff of his own, and shifted elections responsibilities from the elected county clerk and the elected tax assessor and voter registrar to a newly created department under an appointed elections administrator.
Last month, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar issued a letter warning Harris County that reductions in law enforcement would draw sanction under a state law known as Senate Bill (SB) 23, which punishes entities that “defund” police. His letter was interpreted by commissioners as blocking the adoption of the FY 2023 budget and setting a tax rate.
Yesterday, the county filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas over the matter and asked a Travis County District Court judge to issue an injunction, but Judge Lora Livingston instead asked attorneys to clarify the law and when it would apply.
In response, Garcia issued a statement claiming the governor and comptroller had “walked back” claims of an investigation.
“This is not just a win for Harris County residents but also for local governments across the state of Texas, who know better than anyone in Austin does on how to govern to keep their counties safe,” said Garcia.
But on Wednesday, Hegar pushed back with his own statement, saying that his role was not to prevent the adoption of a budget but to examine whether the adopted budget complies with Texas law.
“If Harris County commissioners move forward and adopt a budget that fails to cure the issues in the proposed budget that we reviewed, then that adopted budget will be in violation of Local Government Code,” wrote Hegar. “Harris County remains subject to all the provisions of SB 23.”
A University of Houston poll of 2,140 YouGov respondents conducted in August showed Hidalgo with a 10 percentage point lead over Mealer and 6 percent undecided, but only 195 of those polled were residents of Harris County.
Editor’s Note: This article now includes the fact that only 195 of the 2,140 polled YouGov respondents were residents of Harris County.
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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.