A county budget threefer

Three items of interest in the news that relate to the Harris County budget.

Contemplating cremation

Commissioners Court this morning discussed possibly changing to a cremate-first policy at Harris County’s public cemetery.

A report from the cemetery director projects that the county’s 18.7-acre cemetery will be full some time next year, necessitating the purchase of a 25-acre plot for $7 million.

Switching to cremation instead of burial would save the county about $60,000 a year in operations. It would also give the county five to seven years before it would have to purchase more land for another cemetery, county budget officer Dick Raycraft told the Court.

Makes sense to me. I might argue that this should be the default going forward, not just till more land can be acquired. What do you think?

The business of bail bonds. Beyond the likely uncollectable money that the county is owed, and the pathetic resources the county has to try anyway, the meat of the story is this:

Under tough policies adopted more than a decade ago, Harris County’s judges created a huge boom in the local bonding business by denying nearly all accused criminals’ requests for so-called personal bonds — even for many people accused of low-level crimes like drug possessions or misdemeanors, records show. Meanwhile, district judges also raised bond rates for low-level repeat drug offenders and for anyone suspected of living illegally in the United States.

Those judicial decisions forced more people to pay bail bondsmen nonrefundable fees of at least 10 percent to win release or simply stay in jail, where the number of pretrial prisoners has mushroomed, argues Gerald Wheeler, a Ph.D. researcher and retired Harris County pretrial services director who has studied the system.

Wheeler describes the county’s oversight of bonding as “inefficient and convoluted” and advocates a broad-based review and reform of the entire system.

The policy of denying personal bonds was advocated by Republican judicial candidates in the 1994 and 1996 elections, and implemented by them after they won. As Grits says, it’s time to go back to how it was before. Which brings us to the last story:

Harris County may look to reserves for Sheriff’s Office. As we know, the county hopes to save some money by spending less on the Sheriff’s department. This doesn’t represent a change in that thinking, it’s more a desire to be realistic about what the costs actually are and be up front about it. But it does connect very clearly to the previous story:

A growing jail population has fueled a 66 percent increase in sheriff’s spending during the past four years.

The sheriff has spent about $34 million this year alone on overtime, much of it to cover shifts at its understaffed jail. A consultant’s study in December concluded that the county has 342 fewer jailers than it needs.

“It begs the question as to whether or not the number of employees he has is enough,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “If it’s not, then let’s hire the people with the same money we’re spending on overtime.”

[County Judge Ed] Emmett, too, suggested that hiring more deputies could actually save the Sheriff’s Office money.

It probably would. So would going back to personal bonds so that fewer people who don’t need to be in jail wind up there anyway. Has anyone heard anything from our jail czar lately?

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