Travis County looks for ways to keep court programs hit by Abbott cuts


Highlights

County will temporarily fund the affected programs itself until officials decide what they can afford to keep.

Next three months to be used to evaluate the programs’ performance and look into other funding options.

Still grappling with the loss of $1.5 million in court grants cut by Gov. Greg Abbott amid the battle over “sanctuary” policies, Travis County will temporarily fund the affected programs itself until officials decide what they can afford to keep.

Abbott cut off those state grants to Travis County last week in response to Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new policy honoring fewer federal immigration detention requests at the jail. The 13 grant-funded programs, which serve nearly 5,000 people, include a special veterans court and a drug diversion program.

The Travis County Commissioners Court approved a plan Tuesday for county staffers to take the next three months to evaluate the programs’ performance and look into other funding options, such as noncounty resources, special revenue funds, existing departmental funds and reserves. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said the period will also give the departments time to make the case for their programs.

A s many as 18 jobs related to those programs are in jeopardy. Four of the grant-funded positions are currently vacant and will remain that way. The other 14 employees will be notified this month that their positions are being eliminated as of May 15 because the state funding is gone. The county could then add those positions from its own coffers if it decides to keep them.

It will cost the county about $100,000 a month to keep the programs up and running during the three-month review period.

“To continue these programs probably means dipping into our reserves,” Eckhardt said.

One possible source of funding could come from the private sector. A new initiative called Travis County #StrongerTogether, created last Friday and spearheaded by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, is collecting donations from the general public through the Austin Community Foundation. So far, more than $98,000 has been raised.

But the $1.5 million that Abbott cut last week might not be the only grant money on the line.

Abbott, who has called Hernandez’s new policy a threat to public safety, has directed state agencies to identify other funds, both state and federal, that flow to Travis County. And President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order promising to withhold federal money from so-called sanctuary cities and counties.

Travis County officials estimate there are about $52 million in active state and federal grants — about 5 percent of the county’s 2017 budget — that are potentially in jeopardy.

Hernandez’s new jail policy changes a longstanding agreement that lets U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents place “immigration holds” or “detainers” on Travis County jail inmates — no matter the seriousness of the crime for which they are arrested — when agents want to further investigate their immigration status. Hernandez has said she will only honor detainer requests for inmates accused of murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking, or inmates for whom ICE has obtained a warrant.

During the Commissioners Court’s discussion Tuesday, Commissioner Brigid Shea chastised the governor for punishing vulnerable groups that depend on the grant-funded programs instead of working out his differences with the sheriff.

“If he has a disagreement with the sheriff, he should try and figure out how to deal with the sheriff or the Sheriff’s Department, not do this scattershot (reaction) that hurts so many people, including veterans,” Shea said.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion noted that many of the programs aim for diversion, and said it would be interesting to calculate how much more money might eventually be spent on prosecution that could have been avoided.

“The irony of this is if we are unsuccessful at this diversion, they go into state jail system,” Eckhardt said. “They cost the state.”



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