Sheriff says $15M budget gap could imperil public safety

January 26, 2012 4:34:14 PM PST
The sheriff puts a cost on your safety, demanding millions to get deputies out of jail. It's a political dare that puts public safety on the line over millions of Harris County tax dollars.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the county budget office are $15 million apart. He says he needs that much money to simply hold the line on crime in the county.

The state of Texas has strict rules about how many people need to work inside the jail, but there's no rule about how many are needed to patrol your streets. Facing a hiring shortage, the sheriff on Thursday made the tough choice to take deputies off the streets and put them inside the jail. He took us behind those locked doors to show us the problem first hand.

As Garcia showed us around on Thursday, he told us he has too many full-fledged deputized lawmen doing the job that a less qualified, less paid civilian detention officer could do, which keeps these guys in here instead of out on your street.

"He's well paid for what he could be doing, but we have other people who we could pay less to do that same job," Garcia said.

County records show Garcia has 345 more deputies in the jail than he needs, costing you millions in overtime and maybe more than money.

"He's wearing a badge, carrying a gun. I want him out there fighting crime and not in here processing," Garcia said.

The difference is about $15 an hour for every deputy in the jail, every hour, every day. It adds up to millions of tax dollars over a year.

Now, in the first round of a budget battle, the sheriff says if the county can't meet his budget needs -- about a $15 million gap -- your safety could be at risk.

"If I don't, the community's public safety will be compromised. Things will be running slower, there will be less deputies available to the public, so it'll be a very difficult situation for everybody," Garcia said.

It is not a new claim.

The sheriff has been fighting against Commissioners Court since he took office in 2009, blaming a county-imposed hiring freeze that forced him to replace civilians with deputies inside the jail.

There isn't much evidence, at least not yet, that it is hurting public safety. The jail population is lower today than any time in Garcia's tenure, and violent crime last year dropped in virtually every category. And yet the community, Garcia says, wants more.

"You have no doubt that unless you get the $15 million you want, Harris County won't be as safe?" we asked Garcia.

"That's correct," he said.

Let's not be naive. Some of this is politics and this is budget season. Garcia is a Democrat and the many of the commissioners are Republican. It's a fight they've had several years in a row.

The one commissioner who would talk to us, El Franco Lee, said if the budget request survives the process, the sheriff would get his money.

Sheriff Garcia has cut spending every year he's been in office. The only increase this year is for increased medical costs. It's up for a vote at Commissioners Court in the middle of next month.