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Budget standoff puts Houston-area police in tough spot

A no-show by a pair of Republican county commissioners forced Houston's Harris County into a 2023 budget that will undercut efforts to reduce crime.

HOUSTON (CN) — A battle over the law enforcement budget for Texas’ biggest county ended in frustration Tuesday for its Democratic leaders after two of their Republican colleagues boycotted a meeting, forcing adoption of a status quo tax rate that will deprive police of proposed 8% pay hikes.

The criminal justice system is struggling in Houston’s Harris County, as courts are facing a 100,000-plus case backlog, leaving violent offenders locked up in the county jail longer before they are sentenced and transferred to state prisons and leading to frequent inmate assaults of jailers and each other.

This year alone, 21 prisoners have died in the county jail, which lacks staff to safely supervise its 10,000 inmates.

Though homicides are down 34% from last year through Sept. 30, in the November election for Harris County judge, a chief executive position with no judicial duties, a University of Houston poll of likely voters found 78% listed crime and public safety as very important to their decision.

The Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo, a Stanford political science graduate who likes to base her decisions on expert-derived data, touts her investments in early childhood education and homelessness reduction, but also law enforcement, noting the county district attorney’s budget has increased by 24% since since 2018. She first took office in January 2019.

While her Republican opponent Alexandra Del Morel Mealer – a former Army bomb squad captain and Harvard business and law school graduate – is a political newcomer, she is slightly ahead of Hidalgo in recent polls. She has portrayed Hidalgo as soft on crime in attack ads.

That race loomed in the background at a Harris County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday, convened to pass a tax rate that will dictate the county’s budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

Hidalgo and two of her fellow Democratic colleagues, Precinct 1 and 2 Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, have a majority on the court.

But for weeks their Republican colleagues, Precinct 3 and 4 Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle, have blocked their efforts to pass their preferred budget by boycotting meetings, depriving the court of a quorum of four commissioners needed to pass a budget.

A budget proposed in August by Daniel Ramos, executive director of the Harris County Office of Management and Budget, would have lowered the county’s property tax rate from FY 2021 and provided $100 million for county law enforcement – the sheriff’s office and eight constable offices.

But Ramsey’s and Cagle’s absence at Tuesday morning's meeting forced adoption by default of a no-new-revenue budget for FY 2023 for not only the county’s general fund, but also the Port of Houston Authority.

They are also expected to skip a meeting Tuesday afternoon for votes on the FY 2023 tax rate for the Harris County Flood Control District and Hospital District, also sticking those agencies with status quo budgets.

Ramos told the commissioners court services will inevitably suffer, especially given U.S. inflation is at a 40-year high.

“What we are expecting departments to do is provide the same amount of services with the same amount of money, which in the inflationary environment we are in, the cost of health care going up, it’s not going to be feasible,” he said.

Cagle is up for reelection this year and he claims he is simply following his constituents’ wishes by refusing to consent to a more than $200 million property tax increase for Harris County home and commercial property owners.

Hidalgo disputed Cagle’s claims Tuesday.

“A tax rate increase was never on the table. … The debate has simply been about how much to reduce the tax rate by … Setting a reasonable tax rate cut that funds public services like flood control, like public safety, like our hospitals is what we need four members in order to do. We can’t do it without four members,” she said.

Accusing Cagle and Ramsey of playing political games, Hidalgo ticked off a parade of horribles she said will be inflicted by their refusal to show up for budget-vote meetings.

She fumed that flood control projects that protect homes and businesses will be jeopardized and the county hospital system will operate $45 million in the red, resulting in longer wait times for patients of the county’s two public hospitals and other hospitals.

Hidalgo added that 36,000 kids could lose access to one of the county’s biggest literacy programs and an assessment center for sexually abused children will lose $500,000.

She emphasized her preferred budget would have given Harris County police an 8.25% raise, which she said was also meant to attract officers to budgeted but unfilled positions as candidates seek out jobs with better-paying agencies.

“You will no longer receive that raise because we can’t afford it and we can’t afford it because two members are playing politics. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I hope these gentlemen show up or explain themselves to these police officers and their families why they cut their raises,” Hidalgo said.

While Hidalgo portrayed adoption of the no-new-revenue budget as a done deal in Tuesday's meetings, the commissioners court still has until Friday to pass a new budget and tax rates before reversion to the budget of FY 2022 for the new fiscal year.

In that all-but-sealed scenario, the county will only be able to collect new revenue from properties added to its tax base in the last year.

And the prospect of Cagle and Ramsey joining budget negotiations is unlikely as the commissioners court is not scheduled to convene again this week.

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