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Harris County gets ready for the shaft

One of the ways in which the state will attempt to address its budget shortfall is by shortchanging counties – cutting reimbursements, raiding funds, and the like. Having already decimated its own budget, Harris County is preparing for further indignities.

“When you go to the Legislature you don’t want to be whining about everything,” said Cathy Sisk, the county’s director of legislative relations. “But they’re having a large impact on county fiscal matters because of so many things that they’re doing, and they’re specifically raiding funds that are now dedicated to counties.”

The proposed cuts include:

· Cutting the portion of mixed beverage taxes counties receive from 10.7 percent to 8.3 percent, costing Harris County an estimated $3.2 million from the $14.3 million the fees yielded last year.

· Cutting 15 percent from the reimbursements sent to counties for paying jurors. Harris County, which spent $2.1 million paying jurors during its last fiscal year, could lose almost $200,000 under this proposal.

· Eliminating payments to counties for roads and bridges; Harris County received $148,653 in these funds last year.

· Chopping statewide mental health funding by a fifth — from $290 million this year to $226 million next year for adults and from $67 million this year to $53 million next year for children. These cuts also would result in the state losing $64 million in federal grant dollars for mental health care, Sisk said.

The first three are almost incidental, more irritating than anything else. The last is huge, not just in terms of the up front amount but in terms of how much greater the back end costs for Harris County taxpayers will be.

Treating a mental health patient through a community mental health program costs $12 per day, according to state data. Mentally ill inmates cost $85 to $280 per day to house and treat in Harris County jail, county officials said, depending on the severity of their conditions.

Every one of those $12 a day inmates that the state will refuse to pay for will instead cost the county up to $280 a day. And every last one of those self-styled “fiscal conservatives” that have urged Governor Perry and the Legislator to balance the budget through cuts alone is perfectly happy with that.

In his State of the County address March 4, County Judge Ed Emmett said the county would only see positive changes in the coming years if lawmakers at all levels showed “vision and courage,” such as by raising fees or taxes to pay for mental health care if necessary to secure funding.

Emmett, a Republican former state representative, said he expects such actions from the GOP-dominated Legislature at some point.

“They’ll get there,” Emmett said. “And if they don’t, then I hope some of them get beat. It’s just that simple. We all have to govern. It’s fine to campaign on what you’re against, but sooner or later you have to govern.”

I don’t have anywhere near the same faith that Judge Emmett has in the state’s Republican leadership, but he’s absolutely right about the remedy. It’s just unfortunate that we’ll all have to suffer for the lack of vision and courage in the meantime.

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  1. […] (Fellow blogger Charles Kuffner has also written on Judge Emmett’s recent comments.) […]