Travis County may be subsidizing constable work for out-of-county towns

When Travis County constables from two precincts head out several mornings a week in their recognizable cruisers, they might not always be working for the local taxpayers who pay their salaries.

One of the primary jobs of Texas constables is serving arrest warrants for minor crimes such as unpaid speeding tickets. Yet, in an arrangement that appears rare, if not unheard of, in other precincts across the state, Travis County Precincts 2 and 3 have been renting out their deputies to a growing number of Central Texas cities and towns to help those cities serve their local warrants.

The municipalities, some of which lie outside the county, benefit greatly from the deal. Without help, they say, their warrants would often go unserved, leaving fines unpaid and scofflaws unpunished. Thanks to the Travis constables, cities such as Elgin in Bastrop County, Buda and Kyle in Hays County, and Luling and Lockhart in Caldwell County have collected $300,000 in fines since January.

Yet the benefit to Travis County taxpayers, who this year will spend about $13 million on five constable offices, is much less clear. At the very least, the time the deputies work on behalf of other cities is time away from the jurisdictions that pay them to work locally. In some cases, deputies might travel an hour away from their districts to serve the outside warrants.

Officials say the arrangement is in part a gesture of local goodwill to help neighbors. “We want to perform this function for other government entities that don’t have the infrastructure, as long as it is a wash as far as costs goes,” Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said.

While breaking even on costs might have been true at one time, however, it is not at all clear that Travis County taxpayers are getting a fair financial deal now, an American-Statesman analysis shows. Under an arrangement that’s been unchanged for nearly 15 years, the deputies collect $50 for each warrant served, nominally to cover the costs of the deputies’ salaries — they start at $49,000 — plus gas, wear-and-tear on the precinct’s vehicles and administration of the program.

But county officials haven’t performed a full analysis to see if the deal pays for itself. A 5-year-old county report estimated that, in 2008, constable offices would have had to receive about $75 per warrant — 50 percent higher than the current fee — to break even, meaning Travis County taxpayers likely have been subsidizing the warrant service for other cities.

The arrangement also raises larger questions about the need for the state’s constables generally. Written into the Texas Constitution, the elected offices in some ways are an anachronism, with duties they once performed being absorbed over time by larger law enforcement agencies or private companies that perform the same service.

In response, some offices have been forced to scramble to find enough work for their officers to do. Several precincts have entered into contracts to provide police patrols for other municipalities, such as the Shady Hollow Municipal Utility District in southern Travis County, in exchange for a monthly fee. Others have started writing traffic tickets, particularly in school zones, as a way to keep deputies occupied and provide income. Another has begun soliciting local law offices in an effort to drum up civil warrant service business.

When Precinct 2, headquartered in North Austin, suddenly lost part of the large volume of warrants it had traditionally served, administrators began aggressively seeking more contracts to keep the money flowing and provide assignments for deputies.

“If the work is not there, in order to maintain our personnel, we have to go out there and find the work for them,” explained Chief Deputy Constable George Morales.

Constable offices vary

Constables have been around as long as Texas. Historically, each county had to have at least one constable precinct, and today, there are more than 700 such constable offices in the state.

Their general duties include serving civil process papers such as lawsuit notices, subpoenas and eviction notices, among other records. Constables or their deputies also serve as bailiffs at proceedings in justice court, which have jurisdiction over the least serious misdemeanor criminal cases and minor civil disputes, such as small claims matters.

Other duties include more obscure responsibilities. Constables, for instance, “shall accompany and assist the Department of Agriculture to enforce its notices concerning the destruction of nursery products and florists items,” according to the local government code.

Under the law, constables also can perform other general law enforcement jobs as long as those efforts are funded by county commissioners, and Travis County’s five constable’s offices have carved out different missions for themselves. Former Travis County Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant, who also served as president of the state constable association, said he used to advise colleagues across Texas to find a niche that best served their constituents.

Part of that effort stems from self-protection. Several Texas counties in recent years have reduced the number of their constable precincts as cost-saving moves.

In Travis County, Precinct 5, which primarily covers downtown and Central Austin, has established a virtual monopoly on serving civil process papers because of its across-the-street proximity to the county courthouse. Yet that work has been threatened with the growth of private services that do the same job.

Other constables offices started taking on law enforcement duties traditionally performed by other agencies. Among others, Sheriff Greg Hamilton has questioned whether that duplicates the work his deputies do.

Through one of two contracts of its kind, Precinct 3 deputy constables patrol the Shady Hollow MUD for a certain number of hours each month. The MUD pays the county $7,573 a month in expenses — a number calculated by county budget officials to ensure it covers the county’s actual costs.

Such contracts must be approved by county commissioners, who also scrutinize whether the work pays for itself.

Statewide, many constable offices limit the scope of their work to performing law enforcement functions on behalf of the justices of the peace in their precincts. Yet as state-licensed peace officers, they also have jurisdiction statewide to serve arrest warrants, which may be issued by a county justice of the peace or municipal judge in any Texas city when an offender fails to pay a fine.

Unlike with other outside work, constables aren’t legally required to seek commissioner approval for agreements to serve such warrants on behalf of other cities or towns.

The practice of entering into formal agreements to serve warrants for other municipalities appears largely special to the Travis County. State constable association officials said they have heard of other jurisdictions providing the service, but couldn’t identify any.

Former Travis County constables said the arrangement started in Precinct 3, headquartered in southwestern Travis County, in the late 1980s. State law at the time limited the amount that law enforcement officers could collect to only $3 for each warrant served, so many constables didn’t make serving warrants a high priority. When legislators raised the fee to $35 in 1989, however, some saw the practice as a chance to make money.

Revenue from such fees must be turned over to the county’s general fund, which is used to pay salaries or for equipment for any county agency. But commissioners have historically considered an office’s income when setting their annual budgets, including setting the number of full-time employees they may have.

Legislators limit fee

Previously, cities generally had no one to serve their warrants aside from their own small police forces. The warrants often languished, the fines uncollected. Some small municipalities use private services to collect the fines, but those services, unlike constables, can’t threaten a scofflaw with jail and so have limited leverage.

Under the constable agreements, towns typically keep warrants for defendants who live within their city limits for local police to serve. If they have warrants for defendants who live in Travis County, they send those to the local constable’s office. Bonnie Townsend, court administrator for the city of Lockhart, said she also sends warrants for people who live in towns outside, but near Travis County, such as Cedar Park, Round Rock or Georgetown.

In the past, most Central Texas cities wishing to contract with a Travis County constable to serve their warrants have done so with Precinct 3. Yet the office in recent years began phasing out the practice for financial reasons.

Former Precinct 3 Chief Deputy Constable Stacy Suits, who worked with former Constable Richard McCain during his eight years in office, said that about four years ago, Suits became worried that the $50 warrant fee — the state in 1999 raised the fee from $35 — might not be covering the agency’s overhead costs.

In 2008, ahead of the state’s legislative session the next year, the county’s budget office did a short study that concluded the county’s costs likely weren’t getting covered. A one-page report — which considered the costs of personnel, gasoline and vehicle wear-and-tear — concluded that if the county wanted to cover its expenses, it should be receiving about $75 for each outside warrant served.

Legislators declined to raise the fee, though. “It became apparent to me that the business model of executing municipal warrants was obsolete from a cost recovery/revenue perspective,” Suits said.

Others have reached the same conclusion, said Lonnie Hunt, county relations officer for the Texas Association of Counties.

“Obviously, the cost of serving these warrants has increased significantly since 1999,” Hunt wrote in an email to the American-Statesman. “Law enforcement personnel costs have nearly doubled since then, and fuel costs have tripled. As a general rule, it is more costly to serve these warrants in the larger urban counties. Some counties report that serving warrants in metropolitan areas can cost up to $125.”

Suits said that he and McCain decided to begin shifting their efforts away from serving warrants for other municipalities, allowing them to focus on other programs.

Precinct 2 Constable Adan Ballesteros has taken the opposite approach, signing new warrant contracts as quickly as they can be arranged. Officials said that, until a couple of years ago, Glenn Bass, the precinct’s justice of the peace, had sent a steady flow of warrants for the office to serve, but halted the practice amid a dispute over how deputies handled the collection of fines. (Today, Bass relies on county collections staff to try to get payments.)

In addition to Buda, Kyle, Lockhart and Luling, Ballesteros’ office also has inked agreements with Manor, in Travis County, collecting $137,000 for the city since the beginning of the year; and with Hutto, which is in Williamson County, to serve its warrants.

Lockhart was among the cities to first sign an agreement with the office, even though it’s in Caldwell County, 40 miles from Precinct 2.

Last year, Ballesteros also signed up the city of Luling — a 50-mile drive from Precinct 2 headquarters. Johnny Lee Spriggs, the presiding judge for Luling Municipal Court, said the city had more than $1 million in unpaid fines — “a tremendous amount of revenue that can be used for local purposes, to improve our conditions here in our city.”

“We were looking for resources to help us, and they are one of those,” he said. Since the beginning of the year, Travis deputy constables have collected about $2,000 for the town.

At Precinct 3, meanwhile, newly elected Constable Sally Hernandez said she is considering getting back into the outside warrant-serving business over fear of having her budget cut from the income loss.

Since January, she has signed new contracts with nearby Bee Cave and with Elgin — 45 miles east of her precinct headquarters.

Hernandez said she also has recently reached out to local law firms, asking them to send civil legal documents to her office to serve in another effort to market her precinct’s services.

“Our focus, as a constable’s office, shouldn’t be money-making,” she said. “It should be community and public service. But we want to do our part. We want to do the civil process, we want to do the warrants, we want to do the things we are commissioned to do, and we realize you have to have money to do that, so we are doing whatever we can to make that happen.”

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