Budget cuts mean layoffs in Harris Co.

HOUSTON It's news no one wants to hear. On Tuesday, The Harris County health department sent emails out to its employees warning that layoffs are on the way.

When Harris County Commissioners passed their new budget, they promised there would be some belt tightening, but there was some debate about whether or not layoffs will occur. Since then, we have learned that at least for the health department, they are certainly planning to do so.

An email that went out to all 700 employees read in part, "Unfortunately, this sizeable reduction in funds means we really do have to move forward with layoffs. The choices now before us are limited and difficult. Executive staff will be meeting together tomorrow to discuss and review specific strategies, including specific employee layoffs."

Eyewitness News has learned the health department is targeting about 40 employees of the 700 to face layoffs.

The biggest part of the Harris County budget, the sheriff's department, got $376 million for the next fiscal year. Not ideal, says the sheriff, but enough to keep the status quo.

"Today's adoption of this budget indicates it's not the budget I'd like to have, but it will be one we can work with and that we will continue to be able to serve the citizens of Harris County," said Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

The sheriff and county commissioners agree the most reliable way to reduce county expenses is to reduce the jail population, but that will take time. Meanwhile, the county has instituted a number of belt tightening initiatives, including a hiring freeze, no out of state travel and -- here's where commissioners disagree -- possible layoffs.

"I believe that there will be some people laid off, that's my opinion," said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack. "I don't think it will be in a law enforcement arena."

Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said, "I think all of us heads of departments are going to do everything humanly possible not to lose anybody."

Commissioners do agree that a number of projects could be delayed. Taxpayers we talked to are just worried that services like satellite offices will be cut. But Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says most of the belt tightening should not be obvious to consumers.

"Some of the department heads may not be completely happy," Judge Emmett said. "But it was a unanimous court, and frankly it was done without any rancor."

It is up to department heads what, if any, layoffs are necessary. The health department is expecting an eight percent reduction in the budget.

There is also for the county a travel freeze. No travel out of state except for very specific circumstances and also a hiring freeze.

Commissioners have also talked about cremating people who can't afford to pay for a burial. Right now indigents in our area are given a burial. Commissioners say they will save millions by cremating people who cannot be identified or if a relative says it's OK.

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