County looks to cut $50M from upcoming budget

February 23, 2010 4:31:51 PM PST
You've been hearing budget woes from communities across the country, and Harris County is no exception. This morning, County Commissioners took a hard look at the potential budget deficit they will have to close for the next fiscal year. According to the County, it will spend $1.673 billion for the 2009-2010 fiscal years, which is almost over. However, looking ahead at the 2010-11 fiscal year, it estimates that it will have only $1.569 billion to spend, leaving a $104 million gap. The budget woes were not unexpected, especially with a decrease in property values, and in turn, property taxes that are collected. The bigger issue becomes just where to cut.

The most obvious target is the Harris County jail. The jail is notoriously overcrowded. Housing the inmates cost millions in overtime and renting cell space outside of Harris County.

"If the population of the jail goes down, we don't have to pay to rent cells in other counties or in Louisiana and we don't have to pay overtime for staff to work extra hours in the jail," said Sheriff Spokesperson Alan Bernstein.

Both the Sheriff's department and the District Attorney's office are working diligently to reduce jail overcrowding without compromising safety. A few months ago, DA Pat Lykos instituted a diversion program for first time DUI offenders. She's also stopped the filing of felony drug charges when only trace amounts of drugs are found. The next major step for the county is a mental health facility that can process many of the mental health related cases and keep them out of the jail.

Another possible way to save money for the Sheriff's Department is to actually hire more deputies.

"I think rather paying overtime, we ought to be hiring people to do the job, that would cost less," said Judge Ed Emmett.

Emmett also says that the entire Sheriff's budget may be unrealistically low, therefore forcing the department to run over budget year after year.

Besides the jail overcrowding issue, Commissioners will be looking at a number of additional ways to make ends meet. A hiring freeze and a delay in cost of living adjustments are already basically in effect. In addition, there might be delays in scheduled library renovations. One of the more unique suggestions is that the County goes to a cremation policy for people buried at the County Cemetery. It would save both money and precious land space. A regular burial would still be available for family members who request it.

"It's not a big cut, it's pretty stable," continued Emmett, who insists these belt tightening moves would be enough to avoid layoffs or furloughs.

Over the next two weeks, budget experts at the Commissioners Court will be going through every departmental request and looking for ways to save. We should know in the coming days what programs will really be in danger of getting cut. The official budget is expected to be adopted by March 9th.