Prompted by a complaint from Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap last year, Gov. Greg Abbott’s Criminal Justice division formally requested an investigation by Comptroller Glenn Hegar into allegations that the county had reduced the funding between 2022 and 2023.
After annualizing the county’s Short Fiscal Year (SFY) 2022 budget of just seven months compared to its Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget of 12 months, the comptroller’s analysts concluded that Harris County had reduced Heap’s budget by $2,367,444, thus triggering sanctions under a Texas ban on defunding police.
In February, Harris County Administrator David Berry told commissioners that instead of a month-to-month comparison, his office used pay periods to compare SFY 2022 to FY 2023. The commissioners court opted to file a lawsuit against the comptroller.
While County Judge Lina Hidalgo called Hegar’s determination “unfounded” and publicly disputed that Heap’s budget was reduced, in the legal complaint, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee claims that state law code “authorizes the Comptroller to compare only Harris County’s last two ‘adopted’ budgets.”
“Harris County never adopted an ‘annualized’ fiscal year 2022 budget, and nowhere in [state law] is the Comptroller authorized to annualize a county budget and make determinations based on those calculations,” reads the county’s complaint.
Secondly, the county attorney’s argues that even if the commissioners court accepts the comptroller’s annualization method, Heap’s “share” of the total budget actually increased.
Under “Back the Blue” legislation signed by Abbott in 2021, counties with populations of more than one million must obtain voter approval to reduce law enforcement agency budgets, or else have their property taxes frozen at the no-new-revenue rate.
While touting expansion of “public safety spending” that includes more funding for the public defender’s office, providing public Wi-Fi, and installing streetlights, trees, and sidewalks, Democrats on the commissioners court have balked at adding patrol officers or prosecutors and often sparred with the county’s elected constables and district attorney over funding allocations.
In a statement, Hidalgo called the Travis County court’s temporary restraining order a “crystal clear ruling that Comptroller Hegar’s math is wrong,” and reiterated her position that the comptroller had misled the public “with false, baseless allegations.”
Hidalgo also claimed that the county had increased law enforcement budgets “across the board,” and that the county had seen a 10 percent reduction in violent crime compared to last year.
According to state reports, crime rates in Harris County began to climb in 2019. The Texas Department of Public Safety indicates there were 633 murders reported in the county for 2021. Final data for 2022 is not yet available, but the City of Houston’s preliminary numbers indicate that some categories of violent crime are down by 9 percent, while property crimes have increased.
In a statement to The Texan, Hegar said it was not a surprise that a Travis County judge granted the restraining order.
“Rather than fully funding law enforcement, Harris County is once again resorting to wasting precious taxpayer dollars on expensive lawyers. At least Harris County admitted in these legal filings that they decreased funding for law enforcement,” said Hegar. “We now know that their claim that they would like to find a local solution was simply part of a larger effort to use legal maneuvering to hide their radical efforts to undermine the safety and security of Harris County communities, businesses and families.”
Menefee issued his own statement accusing Hegar of violating the law, and vowed the county would continue to fight in court.
“We’re seeing a pattern of state officials trying to get in the business of disrupting Harris County government to score political points. We are not going to stand for it; the five million residents of Harris County deserve better,” wrote Menefee.
Although Hegar’s office only analyzed funding for the Precinct 5 Constable, annualizing the SFY 2022 budget to 12 months for comparison indicates that the Harris County sheriff, fire marshal, and all other constables’ departments also received lower monthly budgets for FY 2023.
Harris County’s lawsuit is pending in the 455th District Court in Travis County under Judge Laurie Eiserloh and a hearing has been scheduled for March 23.
A copy of the county’s petition for a temporary restraining order can be found below.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the county’s petition.
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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.