Criminal JusticeLocal NewsTaxes & SpendingTexas Comptroller: Harris County Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Court Defunded Police

The comptroller’s analysis found Harris County reduced at least one constable’s budget by more than $2.3 million for 2023.
February 10, 2023
The state comptroller has determined that Harris County reduced funding for law enforcement this year and will now be subject to sanctions under a Texas ban on defunding police.

Prompted by a complaint from Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap, last December, Gov. Greg Abbott’s Criminal Justice division formally requested an investigation by Comptroller Glenn Hegar.

Hegar told The Texan that a team of data and budget analysts in his office concluded that Harris County had reduced Heap’s annual budget by $2,367,444.

“One of the things the county did is they had a short fiscal year and then a full fiscal year, and so that’s been confusing to a lot of people,” said Hegar.

In shifting to an annual budget to run from October to September each year, the Harris County Commissioners Court adopted a “short fiscal year” (SFY) for 2022 of just seven months and then adopted a full year’s budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2023.

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“If you take a seven-month budget and divide by seven, and then multiply to a 12-month budget, it’s pretty simple,” said Hegar.

According to Hegar’s analysis, Harris County officials used a “convoluted approach” that included two different multipliers and excluded two pay periods to argue that they did not reduce funds for Heap’s office.

“We confirmed that the annualized SFY 2022 adopted budget for Precinct 5 was $48,949,795, as compared to $46,582,350 for the Fiscal Year 2023 adopted budget.

Last August, Hegar’s office warned that the proposed FY 2023 budget would run afoul of 2021 legislation that sanctions large counties for reducing police budgets. Counties in violation must either seek voter approval for the reductions or have tax rates frozen at the no-new-revenue rate.

Harris County responded to Hegar’s warning by filing a lawsuit, but a district court judge approved an agreement that allowed the county to proceed with setting a budget and tax rate while acknowledging that the comptroller’s office would scrutinize allocations for compliance with state law.

With Hegar’s official determination announced Friday, the commissioners court may not adopt a tax rate that exceeds the no-new-revenue rate until the county either rectifies the funding reduction or obtains voter approval for the decrease to law enforcement.

Hegar said his staff had frequent communications with county officials over the past months in hopes they would resolve the issue without state action.

“From day one, we communicated with the budgeting department and the county,” said Hegar. “We encouraged the county staff and the constables to engage in conversation, which they did for a while, until commissioners court politicized this to such a degree that it appears no further communication has really occurred to try to find a local resolution.”

Heap confirmed to The Texan that his office had met with County Administrator David Berry to seek a resolution, and thought they had come to a mutual agreement prior to adopting the 2023 budget.

“We met with Berry, Constable [Alan] Rosen, Constable [Mark] Herman, and myself back in May,” said Herman. “I met with Berry again on August 29 and I thought we had this all worked out.”

“It seems to be the goal of the state for us to work this out locally and I am very amicable to sitting down and figuring this out since this is not a good use of taxpayers’ money and our time on either side,” added Heap.

Heap explained that the county’s reluctance to fund law enforcement made it difficult to hire officers.

“A starting officer with Baytown Police is paid $74,000 per year compared to $54,000 for Harris County constables and sheriff’s office,” said Heap. “An eight-year officer at Baytown makes $95,000, while an eight-year officer at the county makes $61,800.”

Heap emphasized that he believed the funding issue is “fixable,” adding, “This is not about who gets to take victory lap, but let’s get to where we can all do our jobs protecting the citizens of Harris County.”

Despite Hegar’s warning last fall, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sought to move forward with the budget proposed by Berry with reductions for the constables as well as a new tax increase. After Republican Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) boycotted meetings to prevent the necessary quorum, the county was forced to default to the no-new-revenue tax rate for FY 2023.

While acknowledging the debate in Harris County over law enforcement funding last fall, Hegar noted that the issue remained unresolved.

“Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Harris County Commissioners Court are defunding the police.”

Harris County constables and District Attorney Kim Ogg also protested last year after commissioners court took back so-called “rollover funds,” but Hegar says his analysis did not consider rollover funds, only year-over-year budgeting.

Hegar confirmed there are additional complaints that Harris County is violating the police defunding ban, but no complaints for any other jurisdiction have been referred to his office.

After the Harris County attorney’s office suggested last year that the district attorney is not a true law enforcement agency, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) filed legislation this week that would add prosecutors’ offices to the list of agencies large counties may not defund.

Neither the county administrator’s office nor the attorney’s office returned a request for comment by the time of publication.

Update: Harris County Administrator David Berry sent the following statement:

“The numbers speak for themselves. Constable Heap’s budget grew from an annualized $46,582,350 to $48,519,429 in the budget adopted last fall. Continuing these games will prevent millions of dollars of future investments in public safety, similar to what occurred last year when the County was forced to scrap the proposed budget that contained almost $100 million in additional funding for the Sheriff, Constables, District Attorney, and Criminal Courts. The no new revenue rate made it impossible to make these investments. Despite these challenges, Harris County continues to invest in law enforcement agencies, and more critical investments will be needed next year. Forcing the County to once again adopt the no new revenue rate would limit the investments that can be made. We remain committed to the residents of Harris County and are exploring all of our options at this time.”



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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a 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.