By Seizing "Roll-Over" Funds, Commissioners Court Caused the "Defunding Constables" Dispute.
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
On 8/22/22, Texas State Comptroller Glenn Hegar issued a letter to Harris County officials stating that the county's proposed 2022 - 2023 fiscal year (F.Y.) budget triggered a state law, specifically Local Government Code, Section 120.002 (otherwise known as Senate Bill 23). Under S.B. 23, a county government with over a million residents must secure voter approval if it adopts a budget that reduces regular funding for a law enforcement agency compared to the preceding fiscal year's adopted budget. In applying S.B. 23, the Comptroller's Office compared the 2021 - 2022 Constable Office budgets (including their “rollover” funds) to the county's proposed 2022 - 2023 Constable Office budgets and determined there was a funding reduction of $3 million dollars. According to the Comptroller's letter, Harris County officials would need to restore that funding or obtain voter approval for the funding reduction. Failure to comply with S.B. 23 would force Harris County to lower its' upcoming property tax rate to the "no new revenue" rate.
Please click on the links below to view the Comptroller's letter and the applicable state law:
So, what caused this situation? To be clear, this fiasco began when Harris County Commissioners Court clawed-back previously authorized roll-over funds from the Constable Offices’ budgets last year. By taking back that money, the Constable Offices experienced a significant reduction in their funding. At the time, all eight Harris County Constables (Democrats and Republicans alike) appeared at Commissioners Court to publicly object to the reduction in funding, but to no avail. This was despite County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s previous pledge not to claw-back those roll-over funds – see link below:
Now, Judge Hidalgo has denied "defunding" the Constable Offices, stating that law enforcement funding, including for each Constable Office, will increase in the county's proposed 2022 - 2023 budget. To claim a budget increase for all the Constables, it appears Judge Hidalgo conveniently excluded from her calculations the funds that she clawed-back from the Constable budgets last year, which is the root cause of the current dispute with the state Comptroller's Office. Additionally, since S.B. 23 simply compares the proposed Constables' Office budgets to the preceding F.Y. budget (with roll-over funds), Hidalgo's general references to other law enforcement agency budgets, higher funding trendline, and an overall increase in the county's public safety spending are not relevant under S.B. 23. Of course, the "public safety" category includes many county programs and projects which have nothing to do with funding law enforcement agencies (or keeping criminals off our streets).
On 8/31/22, despite actually causing this "defunding" dispute with the Comptroller's Office, Judge Hidalgo called a special session of Commissioners Court and then voted to hire two private law firms to potentially file a lawsuit against the Comptroller's Office - see link below:
Well, while we know what originally caused this dispute, we don't know how, or when, it will be resolved. If this dispute is not resolved by October 1, 2022, Harris County may have to adopt the “no new revenue” tax rate which would hamstring county government services, including law enforcement. Frankly, we would rather Harris County give the Constables back some money than hamstring county operations while this dispute plays out in court. Besides, we suspect the largest beneficiaries of a county lawsuit against the Comptroller's Office would end up being the two law firms hired by Judge Hidalgo (using our taxpayer money). We would rather give our tax dollars to our local Constables, not Hidalgo's lawyers.
Note: Last year, when Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Garcia, and Commissioner Ellis voted to seize the "roll-over" funds from most county departments and transfer that money to the General Fund, they decided to exempt their own county budgets from that reallocation process. In short, the County Judge's Office budget and the Commissioners' respective precinct budgets all retained their "roll-over" funds. Instead of leading by example, Commissioners Court members basically told other county officials to do as I say, not as I do. This is almost the definition of poor leadership, folks.
For more information on this developing story, please click on the media links below:
UPDATE 9/7/22: Good news. In a court filing, the state Comptroller's Office has essentially backed down (for now). Since Harris County hasn't actually adopted the 2022 - 2023 budget yet, the Comptroller's Office is taking no action. Harris County officials are moving forward to set a tax rate and adopt the new budget, effective 10/1/22. Once that is done, we will see how this all plays out. For more information, please click on the media link below:
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