Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved nearly $10 million in additional funding for the sheriff and district attorney, three months after the Democratic majority said the unplanned adoption of a lower tax rate would force county departments to tighten their budgets.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s office will receive an additional $5.6 million, covering the cost of a $1.5 million deficit plus another $4.1 million to fill 120 patrol positions to maintain last year’s staffing levels.
District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office will get $4.3 million to plug a $1.8 million deficit and restore funding for 30 assistant district attorney positions.
The sheriff’s office shortfall stems from rising health care costs. While the district attorney’s office also is contending with higher health care costs, the majority of the department’s shortfall was caused by $2.5 million in unbudgeted raises, according to the county’s Office of Management and Budget.
“(The raises) were done over my objection,” Budget Director Daniel Ramos told the court.
Ramos said that while approving the additional funding after the department gave out unbudgeted raises would set up “a moral hazard,” he recommended the court authorize the appropriation rather than risk that understaffing would worsen overcrowding at the jail.
Unlike a department headed by an appointed official, the district attorney’s office is run by an elected official with independent oversight of her office.
“It’s very difficult to have true controls over how money is spent in an elected official’s office,” County Administrator Dave Berry said.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday the district attorney’s office would not need a supplemental appropriation if the original proposed tax rate had passed, but departments were advised to forego raises to meet the constraints of the no-new-revenue rate.
“One of the departments decided to give the raises anyway instead of using those funds for positions. Now that department is coming back and saying ‘I need more money for positions,'” Hidalgo said. “It’s a terrible precedent.”
The district attorney’s office appropriation passed in a 3-1 vote, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis voting no and Hidalgo abstaining. The deal will restore funding for 15 assistant district attorney positions, with funding for another 15 positions to follow after the office submits a report on how it will implement changes to improve areas such as the intake division.
See here, here, and here for some background, and here for an earlier version of the story. It’s not explained where this supplemental funding is coming from – my best guess is that there was some slack from the previously-passed budget, as conservative estimates were used to ensure they didn’t overshoot their revenue, and now that things are clearer there’s room to fill a bit back in.
Ogg’s actions here are obviously problematic, as she exacerbated the projected deficit and then left the county in a bad position as there had already been the commitment made to fund extra positions. Not clear what the Court can do about that – I’ll predict that you won’t see that specific lineup of yes and no votes on many other items going forward (the extra funding for the Sheriff passed unanimously) – but you can add it to the list of things that will likely be brought up in the 2024 primary campaign. One other item to note is that if you go back and peruse Ogg’s January 2023 finance report, you can see that she got multiple contributions from her own employees – each contributor must list their employer, and right from the beginning you can see several who list “Harris County District Attorney’s Office”, or “HCDAO”. You have to wonder how many of those folks got raises.
On a better note, the Court also did this:
Harris County is moving forward with a plan to improve and expand access to child care as the industry struggles to bounce back from the pandemic.
Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve a $26.2 million program that will open new seats at high-quality child care centers for an additional 800 to 1,000 children in low-income families residing in child care deserts, according to officials.
Child care will be free for families participating in the program, which is funded under the American Rescue Plan Act. The program will also increase compensation for child care workers and providers to reduce turnover and improve quality of care.
“That is really what we need to recover from the pandemic, is to build back capacity within the child care sector,” said Sara Mickelson, director for early childhood initiatives at the county’s administration office. “This is about contracting with child care centers who can open brand new child care supply.”
The county awarded a two-year contract to BakerRipley, a Houston nonprofit, to implement the program with help from the United Way of Greater Houston. The measure passed unanimously with no discussion.
What happens after two years, which is presumably when this federal funding runs out, is unclear. My assumption is that if this is deemed to be successful, the Court will find a way to continue paying for it. It’s a great idea, and it should provide a great benefit not just for the recipients, but for all of us in the long run. It’s a travesty that this couldn’t be included in the big infrastructure bill, but the fight continues. Kudos to all for making this happen.