Harris County adopts budget with focus on public safety
Harris County Commissioners Court. Photo by Andrew Schneider/Houston Public Media.

Harris County leaders have passed a $1.3 billion budget for county operations through September, along with a $2.5 billion planning budget for fiscal year 2023, over objections from the court’s two Republican commissioners.

Both Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey proposed alternative budgets that would pump up funding for law enforcement at the expense of a wide range of social services.

An analysis of Cagle and Ramsey’s proposals by the county’s Office of Management and Budget found that Cagle’s proposal would cost 1,140 jobs, while Ramsey’s would cost roughly 1,120. It found some of the heaviest cuts to both plans would fall on Public Health.

“Services would no longer be provided, and I quote: tuberculosis screening and contact tracing – if that isn’t dystopian, I don’t know what is,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “Chronic disease prevention and outreach, childhood programs, diabetes, tobacco cessation, obesity, HIV prevention, childhood immunizations, global health dental services, including the Juvenile Detention Center…It just cannot be possibly taken as a serious proposal.”

Much of the debate hinged on how much the budgets should focus on law enforcement and public safety. The budget proposals from the Office of the County Administrator, supported by the court’s Democratic majority, concentrate nearly 70% of their spending on public safety. Some of the major expenditures include increasing the number of investigators and patrol officers focused on violent crime and improving conditions at the Harris County Jail.

The short fiscal year 2022 budget also increases the salaries for entry level prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office to $87,000 — well above the next-highest paying county in Texas — as a way of addressing concerns in the office about attracting and retaining staff. In addition, Commissioner Adrian Garcia authored an amendment to the budget that would redirect $7 million to raise salaries for sheriff’s deputies and constable’s deputies.

But Ramsey and Cagle each contended the Democratic budgets did not do nearly enough to fund the priorities of law enforcement at a time of rising violent crime rates.

“When we have 600 murders last year, our top three priorities are crime, crime, and crime,” Ramsey said. “If we lose focus on that going into the next seven months, we’re not going to do better.”

Ramsey continued to argue his case long after it was clear his proposal wouldn’t pass.

“Let me be clear what I proposed: to give to the law enforcement – DA, sheriff, constables and fire marshal – what they asked for,” he said. “No amount of talking or amendments is going to escape the fact (that) we’re not doing that.”

The Democratic majority voted down Cagle and Ramsey’s measures, then passed their own budget proposals 3-2.