Months after Gov. Greg Abbott cut $1.5 million in state grant funding to Travis County in retaliation for the new sheriff’s jail policy related to immigration, the county’s staff has put together a proposal for making up for the shortfall — at least temporarily.
The Commissioner’s Court will discuss and vote on a proposal by the planning and budgeting office at Tuesday’s regular meeting.
None of the criminal justice programs covered by state grants — which include specialty courts, victim services and juvenile justice programs and serve more than 3,400 residents — would be cut under the proposal.
Instead, the staff is recommending that the program costs be covered by existing departmental budgets before a long-term solution can be found during the fiscal 2018 budget planning process. Six vacant positions across departments also will be removed.
“The departments felt all these programs were such a high priority that they’re making it work within their existing budgets,” Budget Director Travis Gatlin said. “We know there’s a possibility of further reductions down the road from the state, (and) we were aware of that in trying to craft some budgets that would limit the impact to Travis County taxpayers but also continue the programs.”
In a statement released Monday, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt emphasized that the plan coming to commissioners on Tuesday will ensure the continuation of court services for thousands of Travis County residents.
“We still believe that Gov. Abbott’s attempt at political retribution is unfair and unwarranted, but we look at this experience as a positive,” Eckhardt said in the statement. “By taking a good hard look and finding efficiencies in our processes, we will even further improve the great work being done in our criminal court, victim services and juvenile justice systems.”
The estimated cost to continue the programs previously funded by the governor’s office from January, when the cuts took effect, to the end of September is about $800,000, according to a memo filed by Gatlin’s office.
The staff hasn’t yet determined where it will find money for program costs from October through Nov. 15 — estimated to be $133,000.
After learning of the governor’s cuts, the Commissioners Court in February directed the planning and budget office to review program results and discuss priorities with the seven affected offices and departments, look for ways to use resources more efficiently and explore options for alternative funding.
The commissioners also approved continued funding of more than a dozen program employees until May 15. (Under the proposal, these positions would continue to be paid for using other county sources, some permanent and some that will have to be reassessed in September.)
That same month, offices and departments submitted renewal applications to the governor but, not unexpectedly, were deemed ineligible.
By reorganizing and finding places where efforts were repeated, Gatlin said his office cut the annual cost of the programs from about $1.5 million to about $1.1 million.
Program directors tell him they “don’t think there is going to be a significant impact to the people that they serve” as a result of the cost cutting, he said.
For example, the staff found that counselors who provide treatment for the drug diversion court and DWI court perform essentially the same function and will be able to work for both courts, reducing the staffing need.
Rodolfo Perez, director of pretrial services and adult probation, who oversees both courts, said his biggest concern is making sure he can continue to provide the same level of services. Perez said he is trying to take an optimistic view on an unfortunate situation.
“It may sound corny, but when we go through these types of things, I like to say these are opportunities to reassess what our resources are and maybe even streamline,” Perez said. “We’re going to do the best that we can every day with what we have.”
Update: This article was updated Monday to include comments from Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt.
The story so far
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced a policy in late January limiting the jail’s cooperation with requests by federal agents to hold inmates for potential deportation after they have otherwise been cleared for release. Hernandez said the jail would honor such “detainer” requests only for suspects charged with murder, sexual assault or human smuggling, or in cases in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained a warrant. Gov. Greg Abbott called the policy a threat to public safety, and on Feb. 1, he announced cuts of about $1.5 million in criminal justice grants that Travis County receives through his office. He also called on the Legislature to ban so-called sanctuary cities, setting in motion Senate Bill 4, which awaits his signature.