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Dick Raycraft

Raycraft to retire

Dick Raycraft, who’s been a fixture in county government forever, is calling it a career.

Dick Raycraft, a trusted adviser to generations of Harris County leaders who has wielded so much influence over county policy he earned the nickname “the shadow commissioner,” has announced he will retire at year’s end.

Raycraft, 72, who has worked more than 43 years at the county, will spend his last meeting at the Commissioners Court dais on Tuesday. For the last three decades, he has served as county budget officer, most recently crafting the county’s $1.5 billion operating budget and overseeing billions more in debt.

He also has served as Commissioners Court’s top troubleshooter, called upon to fix mismanaged county departments, settle disputes between department heads, and provide policy reports on everything from jail overcrowding to the implementation of a regional crime lab.

[…]

Under a plan to be considered by the court on Tuesday, Raycraft’s position would disappear on Dec. 31, along with his Management Services Department.

In its place would be a Department of Financial Services & Planning, led by Jack Yuran in a role similar to his current one, and a Department of Budget Management, led by Bill Jackson, now in charge of the E-Business team.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett said Raycraft’s departure leaves a “giant hole.”

“There is no question in my mind that not having Dick Raycraft will make all of our jobs harder,” Emmett declared. “All of us got in the habit of, ‘If you have a question, go ask Raycraft.’ ”

I salute Dick Raycraft for his many years of dedicated service, and I wish him all the best in his retirement. I’ve no doubt that he will be greatly missed by the county. At the risk of sounding churlish, however, I have to note that a few months ago Judge Emmett was pushing for this to happen in the aftermath of the Edwin Harrison debacle. I’m not sure why that wasn’t mentioned in this story. I hate to be a killjoy, but it is relevant information. Be that as it may, again I wish Raycraft all the best. He did a great job for a long time, and people like that are hard to find.

Emmett goes after Raycraft

This will be fun to watch.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, spurred by revelations about former finance chief Edwin Harrison’s business practices and personal conduct, is calling for Harrison’s boss — longtime budget director Dick Raycraft — to produce a reorganization plan for his department and prepare for retirement.

In a meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board Thursday, Emmett unloaded a wide-ranging critique of the county system as managed by Raycraft, a 43-year county employee who has controlled the budget process for nearly two decades.

Emmett said Raycraft had proved “unwilling or unable” to police Harrison’s actions, even after being informed that Harrison liked to meet business associates at what he and friends dubbed the “North Office,” a strip club north of town.

“If you were his friend you got business. And ‘friend’ was defined as, did you do the things he wanted you to do,” Emmett said, noting that “numerous” financial professionals approached him with these concerns. “I would take that to Raycraft and say, ‘This isn’t right,’ and Dick would say, ‘Well, I’m told that he stopped that.’ ‘I’m told’ — that’s been the line all along.”

I have not followed the Edwin Harrison debacle – the revelations about him began at the end of the legislative session, and there’s only so many hours in the day – but it’s bad news. Here are some of the Chron stories about this:

Law firms repaying thousands to county Questionable travel expenses turn up in audits

Ex-financial chief retires amid probes Bond dealings questioned; man, wife also indicted in unrelated case

County in talks with bond sellers Brokers cited with overcharging on investments”

County ex-finance chief grabs FBI’s attention Team in town to investigate his investments HARRISON: Emmett glad FBI involved

ABUSE OF POWER Mai Tais and minibars – on your dime Uncovering Harris County’s losses took a whistleblower and two audits

You get the idea. Call me crazy here, but the idea that the boss of the employee who’d been doing all this stuff for more than five years might be held responsible for his lack of oversight seems perfectly reasonable. Apparently, it’s too much for the Commissioners to contemplate:

Other members of Commissioners Court responded coolly to the judge’s remarks.

“Emmett needs to understand he’s one of five,” Commissioner Jerry Eversole said. “As far as I know, there’s not another member on court that has problems with Dick Raycraft.”

Eversole and Commissioners El Franco Lee and Steve Radack said a closed executive session of Commissioners Court is the proper forum to discuss personnel matters.

“Edwin, obviously, was doing things very loosely. How much of that Raycraft knew, I have no idea,” Eversole said. “If the county judge … has had problems with Raycraft for a year and a half, why hasn’t he brought it up? If he’s got a problem, that’s what we’ve got Commissioners Court for.”

Radack said Raycraft, 71, has been open about his looming retirement and said it may make sense for a succession plan to be drafted. He added that Raycraft, whom he described as “an extremely honorable man,” did not need to do so as a result of Harrison’s actions.

“If (Emmett) has a case that he thinks he needs to make, he can put it on the agenda and attempt to make it. Let’s talk about it,” Radack said. “That’s the purpose of Commissioners Court.”

Seems like an awfully laid-back attitude to take about this. I’m sure everybody likes Dick Raycraft. I’ve never spoken to the man, but I’ve always had a positive impression of him from previous news stories. But c’mon, one of his direct employees is charged with allegedly bilking the county out of millions of dollars, and all the Commissioners can say is how their noses are out of joint because Ed Emmett talked about it out of school? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask why it is that Judge Emmett is the only member of the Court who seems to have a problem with Raycraft’s supervision of his office. Are the Commissioners not concerned about this, or are they just doing their usual diva act so that everyone is reminded who’s really the boss? Perhaps a little sense of urgency from them, to borrow a phrase from the business world, is in order here.

Cancelling constables

Like Grits, I see this as an opportunity, not a loss.

Budget cuts have led two Harris County constables to cancel their security contracts with several area school districts, leaving the districts scrambling for a fix to cover the end of this school year and beyond.

[…]

Cy-Fair is facing the loss of a 38-deputy contract with Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman. Galena Park will lose its existing 11-deputy contract with Precinct 2 Constable Gary Freeman.

In both cases, the districts reimburse the county for 80 percent of the $91,000 cost of a deputy’s salary, benefits and equipment. The full cost of the deputies come out of the constables’ budgets, and the reimbursements from the school districts go into the county coffers.

Hickman’s contract with Cy-Fair, for example, represented a nearly $3.3 million expense on his $29 million budget this year; the district’s cost would have been about $2.7 million.

Harris County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, whose office has worked with constables to implement the county’s deepest spending cuts in years, said the school contracts were the first to go because districts can levy taxes to hire police, unlike, for example, civic clubs.

Or they can say to themselves “That’s a lot of money we could spend on teachers instead”, which would be my preference. Some amount of security is needed, but surely the districts can figure out a way to do it for less. And if along the way that means fewer tickets are written, that’s all to the good.

The county’s financial picture is pretty grim, too

This, too, is ugly.

County budget officials are looking for more than $130 million in spending cuts for the fiscal year that begins on March 1.

Budget officials and county government department chiefs have three months to come up with a plan for how much and where to cut. Commissioners Court then will adopt and, perhaps, modify that plan to fund jails, courts, disease control, libraries, mental health services, parks, road maintenance and other county government services.

Department heads this week received a memo asking them to plan for a 10 percent cut in their budgets and to report how such a cut would affect public services.

“Whether it would be across the board, I don’t know,” said Dick Raycraft, who as the county’s director of management services is the chief budget officer. Such an across-the-board cut would amount to $136 million.

Until the economy improves, the memo says, the budget “will require reduction or elimination of certain services or programs and these changes could last several years or become permanent.”

It’s not just the city or the state. Maybe this will finally force the county to get serious about reducing the inmate population, which for sure would save a lot of money without reducing services for all of us. The Republican Party and Ed Emmett ran campaign ads on behalf of all of the now-re-elected judges who got us into this problem in the first place promising that they’d get us out of it. Well, it’s put up or shut up time. The best answer to the squabble about the cost of outsourcing inmates is to put yourself in the position to not need to do it at all.

And I’m still waiting for any of the usual suspects that love to criticize the city for its financial issues to say something about the county and the mess it’s gotten itself into. Don’t knock yourselves over rushing to respond.

UPDATE: Grits suggests there has been a little bit of progress in the past couple of years in terms of putting fewer people in the Harris County jails. More, much more, is needed, but so far so good.

The county’s budget woes

Don’t look now, but Harris County is running really low on cash.

The $154 million reserve fund Harris County started its fiscal year with is expected to be nearly gone by March as it gets spent to cover shortfalls in property tax collections.

Budget projections released Tuesday show the county entering the fiscal year that begins March 1 with a $5.7 million cash balance on a $1.36 billion budget — a cushion of less than 1 percent. Historically, the county has ended its fiscal year with a cash balance of 15 percent or more.

The situation is dire enough that Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole warned that a day of reckoning is on the horizon that may make a tax increase necessary. As Eversole explained it, voters approved tax increases to pay for the construction of civil, criminal and juvenile courthouses. But Commissioners Court, flush with property tax money a decade ago, decided instead to cover the debt payments with its existing property tax collections. In fact, commissioners cut the tax rate four years ago.

Eversole called voting for that tax cut “the worst thing I ever did.”

“You’re absolutely wasting time if you think we can maintain this budget without a tax increase,” he said. “If we can get through 2011, we damn sure aren’t going to get through 2012. So somewhere along the line either this (budget) has to be cut or we’ve got to talk about a tax increase.”

Is the county not required to maintain a minimum cash reserve? If I’ve understood previous coverage, the city and Metro have some kind of requirement imposed on them. Regardless, surely it’s prudent for them to keep a few more bucks on hand than that. Commissioner Eversole is right, this is not sustainable, and as the state will find out next year, you cannot make this work on cuts alone.

I’ve been saying all along that the 2007 property tax rate cut, which was worth $12 a year to someone with a house valued at $161,000 but which has cost the county $25 million in revenue annually, was irresponsible. County Budget Director Dick Raycraft opposed it, too. It’s the main point of disagreement I have with County Judge Ed Emmett. I’m sure the county can find cuts to make up for that lost revenue, but what will the real cost of those cuts be? Among other things, the hiring freeze that the county is under means that the Sheriff’s office is forced to spend millions on overtime. Judge Emmett recognizes that this is more expensive than actually hiring enough employees to do the job, and that’s before you consider the cost of dealing with the lawsuit that was filed by the deputies’ union. Yet Garcia’s request to hire more employees, as well as requests by DA Pat Lykos and County Attorney Vince Ryan, were turned down. Steve Radack can posture and bloviate all he wants about conducting studies and privatizing the jails, but in the end the numbers are what they are.

Finally, there’s been an endless supply of critics of the city’s finances and Metro’s finances in recent years, but they never seem to have anything to say about the county. I’m looking at you, Bill King, and your perch on the Chron’s op-ed pages, but I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who’s wrung his or her hands about entities other than the county.

Elections administrator proposal will get a study

Like it or not, Commissioners Court is going to consider the possibility of creating an appointed elections administrator position.

The Court orders studies as preludes to formally adopting a public policy change. Dick Raycraft, director of management services, was charged with delivering his conclusion to the Court in September, at which time the Court could create the office.

It cannot name its occupant. State law calls for the elections administrator to be appointed by a five-member board — the county judge, county clerk, tax assessor and Democratic and Republican party chairs. [County Judge Ed] Emmett has pledged not to appoint an administrator until early next year.

You know my concerns about this. I just hope that if this goes forward in September, there will be some real opportunities for the public to engage and give its feedback.

The cheapest jail cell is the one you don’t use

Sorry, Newton County.

Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole held up renewal of a contract with Newton County on Tuesday, and suggested that Harris County needs to do more to get the cheapest possible jail beds.

“If the dollars are the same, I have no problems with what we’re doing, but I’m not believing that the dollars are the same,” Eversole said. “I think the cost per day per prisoner is so much less in Louisiana than we’re getting in Texas.”

[…]

[County budget officer Dick] Raycraft will report to Commissioners Court in two weeks on where Harris County sends its inmates, at what cost and whether it could formally solicit bids from other counties.

“The main thing is to get out of this business of having anybody in another jail,” Raycraft said, by reducing local jail overcrowding through reforms such as diverting the mentally ill to treatment instead of incarceration.

What he said. The county is slowly and hesitantly taking steps in that direction, though there are still some kinks to iron out. At least the basic idea has started to sink in. Grits has more.

Here comes the county budget

Considering how gloom-and-doomy the reports have been, this is downright sunny.

Commissioners Court today will consider a $1.4 billion budget that cuts spending by about 3.2 percent from the fiscal year that ended on Feb. 28.

The spending blueprint does not call for a property tax increase or layoffs. The court will set the property tax rate in September.

Nor should the average county resident detect a change in government services, county budget officer Dick Raycraft said Monday.

Other than the reduction in funding to the Sheriff’s department that we’ve been talking about, it’s not clear from the story how the proposed savings is going to happen. There’s “a number of initiatives in the works” to reduce the jail population but no specifics as yet, there’s the proposed new cremate-first policy that would enable the county to delay purchasing more land for cemeteries, and there’s a future consideration of eliminating car allowances. I’m glad if that’s really all it took, but it feels like we’re missing something.

The county budget blues

The news keeps being bad. Not unexpected, but bad.

During hearings last month, department heads said worst-case scenarios could mean layoffs, less mosquito spraying, tax office closures and fewer resources to serve a still-growing county population.

County Auditor Barbara Schott’s $1.36 billion revenue forecast is close to that worst-case scenario. The county is projected to spend $1.410 billion in the fiscal year that ends Feb. 28.

[…]

The report, which was prepared before Schott revised her revenue estimate downward, puts the sheriff’s budget at $361 million in the coming year. The department is expected to have spent $424 million when the current fiscal year ends a week from now. The sheriff’s department had not yet received the report and a spokesperson had no comment Friday.

A public health department spokeswoman said the same. Public health officials reported last month that they would have to lay off as many as 40 in the worst-case scenario, but the $28.4 million allowance in Friday’s budget numbers appears to protect it from the deepest cuts.

Commissioners Court’s annual consideration of the property tax rate does not occur until September. Schott and [county budget officer Dick] Raycraft plan to review service charges and fees in the next few months and would make any recommendations to the court in September.

Cuts to the Sheriff’s budget make more sense than cuts to the public health budget, because cuts to public health budgets tend to cost you more in the long run. People still do get sick and need emergency care in tough economic times, after all. As long as the cuts to the Sheriff’s budget are based on the expectation that the jail population will decrease due to the efforts of the jail czar, then it’s the right idea. In addition, the Sheriff will see some savings from no longer having to deal with a big backlog of Internal Affairs complaints, which will free up some deputies to get back on patrol and hopefully cause County Commissioner Steve Radack to quit whining for a little while.

So, when the Commissioners get together in September to discuss the property tax rate, what do you think are the odds that they will revisit that 2007 rate cut, which had little effect on most people’s tax bills but which added up to millions of dollars for the county’s coffers? My guess is it’ll be politely ignored, what with there being an election coming up and all, but I suppose one never knows.

There’s a fix for that

As we know, Harris County has a budget shortfall of its own to deal with. So the fact that the Sheriff’s Office is spending more than it was allotted is drawing some scrutiny.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is projected to overspend its annual budget by $51 million, the third straight year it has blown past its planned expenditures by at least $40 million.

If the projections hold, the $423 million spent by the Sheriff’s Office in the year that ends Feb. 28 would be 14 percent more than Commissioners Court planned when it passed the county budget last year.

The numbers are getting a close look from county officials who have scheduled hearings for next week on what is expected to be $1.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2010-11.

“I would like our budget to reflect reality,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I think that’s what people are waiting to hear from the sheriff this time is, ‘OK, why are we over so much?’”

[…]

About two-thirds of the sheriff’s budget goes to running the county jail. It currently houses 1,000 inmates in facilities built for about 9,400 prisoners. The strain has contributed to $34.4 million in overtime this year, as well as millions spent to house overflow prisoners in other counties and Louisiana.

There’s your answer, Ed. The good news is that unlike HPD, whose primary cost drivers have been salaries and pension commitments, solving this particular shortfall is straightforward: Stop locking up people who could instead be out on bail, and expand outpatient mental health services for inmates who would benefit from that. Commissioners Court has appointed a fancy jail czar in place who was tasked with Doing Something to reduce the inmate population, so it’s not like they don’t know what the problem is. Let’s get on with it already.

Of course, for some people, it’s easier and perhaps more natural to just play dumb and haul out the outrage:

“I have asked the budget director to explain to me how the sheriff can be $51 million over and we are expected to carry that by cutting the precincts’ budgets,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole said.

Eversole said he fears the Sheriff’s Office overspending will come at the expense of maintenance of 2,700 miles of roads and thousands of acres of parks in his precinct.

“Why can’t I be $51 million over budget? That’s what I asked the budget director,” Eversole said. “I think those questions are going to be asked again in open court.”

Yo, Jerry. If you read the sidebar on this story, it says that last year the Sheriff’s Office spent $56 million more than was budgeted. Were you asking these questions then? Seems to me that if all of the people who have been responsible for this problem all along – that would include the Sheriff, the District Attorney, all of those lock-em-up judges, and Commissioners Court – had been doing a better job, we wouldn’t be in this position now.

Tax cuts have consequences

We’re all familiar with the financial constraints that the city of Houston is operating under. Harris County is experiencing similar problems.

“As best we can tell appraisals are going to be flat, if not down a little, so that means we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Every Harris County department and agency is preparing for budget cuts heading into the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which begins in March.

11 News obtained a copy of the targeted cuts — and the worst-case scenarios are steep.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office may have to trim as much as 16 percent of its budget. The eight Constable precincts may have cut as much as 13 percent of theirs.

The worst-case scenarios — and every option is on the table — range from reassigning personnel, to cutting hours of operation, to rolling back salaries or to laying off county workers.

“Even if we stay flat we’ve all gotten, frankly, really comfortable with everything growing, growing, growing over the years,” said Emmett. “And we can’t do that anymore.”

We don’t know yet how bad the situation is, but we do know this: Back in 2007, at the urging of Judge Emmett, Commissioners Court cut the property tax rate by a penny. This tax cut, which saved a homeowner with a house valued at $161,000 a whopping $12 annually but saved corporations many thousands of dollars, was opposed by County Budget Director Dick Raycraft because of the loss in revenue the County would experience, which he believed we would some day need. How much revenue are we talking? Twenty-five million dollars a year, which I’d guess would cover the cost of however many Sheriffs and Constable deputies we may wind up laying off. On the bright side, it could have been worse. Emmett’s opponent in the 2008 Republican primary, Charles Bacarisse, wanted to cut the rate by five cents. That would have saved our average homeowner $58 a year, while depriving the county of $125 million a year in revenue. Imagine how many layoffs we’d have to make to cover that. Former Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt was pushing for a cut of about three and a half cents, or about $90 million a year. Does that look affordable now?

Judge Emmett is right, we’ve been comfortable with the idea that our revenues always grow. One of the inevitable consequences of that is the clamoring for tax cuts by irresponsible financial stewards like Bacarisse and Bettencourt, who don’t take seriously the idea that it wouldn’t take much of a decline in rate of that growth – never mind an actual leveling off, or some negative growth – to have a devastating effect on the budget. Maybe they didn’t think it could happen, I don’t know. What I do know is that nobody is going to call for that one cent reduction to be rolled back, because we just don’t do that sort of thing. I can only hope the next time someone calls for an equally irresponsible reduction in the tax rate on the grounds that whatever rate of growth we’re experiencing will be how it is forever, we remember what happened the last time we did that.