According to a letter addressed to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Hegar said that his ruling is in response to complaints filed by Constables Mark Herman (Pct. 4) and Ted Heap (Pct. 5) regarding funding changes last year and in a proposed budget for next year.
One of the key allegations Hegar is investigating is the county’s move to take away more than $3 million in so-called “rollover funds” from constables’ offices. Last year, commissioners voted 3 to 2 along party lines to remove these funds from the eight elected constables as well as the district attorney’s office, based on a recommendation from County Administrator David Berry.
Hegar notes that the proposed budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 will reduce funding to the constables’ offices by over $12 million as compared to Short Fiscal Year 2022, which covers March through September of this year. Although the county appears to be revising the proposal, they are still poised to reduce overall funds for constables by $3 million.
“The budgeting practices of Harris County may not provide the Constables Office with full authority to expend their allocated budget to meet public safety needs,” wrote Hegar.
Signed by Abbott last year, the state’s “Back the Blue” legislation punishes cities or counties with populations of greater than 250,000 people if they reduce allocations for police, by either freezing property taxes or forcing cities to revisit any annexation done in the last 30 years.
Thus, Hegar writes, if Harris County proceeds with the constable’s budget as proposed “without obtaining voter approval, the county may not adopt an ad valorem tax rate that exceeds the county’s no-new-revenue tax rate.”
Following the publication of Hegar’s letter, Abbott released a statement denouncing Harris County’s actions.
“The dangerous actions taken by Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County represent a brazen disregard for the safety and security of the Texans they are sworn to protect. The loss of millions of dollars in funding will endanger public safety across the county at a time when Texas law enforcement is working harder than ever to keep criminals and dangerous drugs out of our communities.”
Last week, Hidalgo and County Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) held a press conference to tout increases in “public safety spending” that included non-traditional expenditures such as $1.5 million for public Wi-Fi, $8.4 million for new trails, and $50 million to address blight and add sidewalks and street lights.
With rising violent crime and homicide rates in the region, however, a recent University of Houston poll found public safety is a top concern for Harris County residents in all demographic groups.
Constable Heap told The Texan he hoped the comptroller’s decision would help restore funding.
“I think I probably speak for everybody in law enforcement in saying our objective here is to rectify the situation so we can provide the safety and security for the people we are sworn to serve,” said Heap. “It’s a good day for us because the State of Texas sees the obstacles we’ve been trying to overcome. Hopefully, now we can work together to serve the people in Harris County.”
“We’re just happy that the governor and Comptroller Hegar stepped in and heard our complaint,” Herman told The Texan. “It appears there ready to take whatever action the state law deems necessary to ensure we get proper funding.”
While Harris County’s eight constables are elected to four-year terms, the commissioners court controls the budget for each. In 2020, a proposal from Garcia to end constables’ contracts with homeowners’ associations drew an outpouring of bipartisan opposition. Last year a controversial consulting group hired by the county recommended the elimination of constables, but the idea was discarded by commissioners.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), a co-sponsor of the law punishing efforts to defund police, called Hegar’s ruling a “big win for public safety and the taxpayers.”
“Basically, Texas just slammed the lid of the cookie jar keeping Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis, and Adrian Garcia from raiding constable funds and creating a public safety crisis.”
Earlier this year, commissioners approved restoring some funding to District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office after she repeatedly attended the commissioners court meetings and accused them of “defunding law enforcement.”
Although the county has not added additional patrol officers to the sheriff’s department, commissioners have approved funds for overtime and, per a request from Garcia, shifted borrowed funds from the county’s Capital Improvement Program to provide raises for non-officer deputies. In crafting the most recent budget, however, commissioners only approved 18 percent of law enforcement requests.
In response to Hegar’s letter, Berry said that forcing the county to adopt a revenue-neutral tax rate would prevent increases in funding for law enforcement.
“The proposed Harris County budget increases the budgets for the Harris County Sheriff’s office and the Harris County Constables by more than $96 million. The Comptroller’s position would keep us from making these vital new investments in public safety, which is contrary to the intent of [Texas law],” Berry said in a written statement.
Commissioners are considering a $2.24 billion budget for FY 2023.
A copy of the comptroller’s letter can be found below.
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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.