Harris County budget plan would cut spending by $138M
A budget on its way to Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday would cut $138 million from current spending on roads, inoculating against disease, promoting economic development, constables' patrols and performing other services.
The county must bring its spending down to $1.2 billion for the year that begins March 1 because the biggest source of its income — property taxes - is expected to plummet in the wake of a recession that has eroded the taxable value of local homes and businesses.
The cuts make this year's budget the starkest in decades.
Department heads who testified before budget officers during the crafting of the spending blueprint warned of hundreds of layoffs, furloughs, reduced hours at public buildings and delays in services.
The court will approve a budget March 8, but on Tuesday it can give the budget office guidance on where to cut deeper or where to avoid cuts. Meanwhile, county officials can appeal formally and informally to the budget office for it to use a lighter touch in wielding its ax.
County Judge Ed Emmett had spoken of the fiscal crisis throughout last fall as an opportunity to limit county government to necessities and to shed nonessential functions. He also called for zero-based budgeting, in which each department would start without money and justify each expense as it built a new spending plan.
None of that happened.
"It's a delayed opportunity," Emmett said of the proposed budget. "I do think we need to be looking at what county government should be doing instead of just saying, 'Well, we're going to do less of what we've always been doing.' "
10 percent cuts
There are piecemeal signs of the damage scattered throughout the seven-page summary: $11.8 million from the eight constables, $7 million from the Juvenile Probation Department, $6 million from building maintenance, $3.3 million from the county's in-house counsel.
The Public Health and Environmental Services is slated for $3.5 million in cuts, about an eighth of its total budget.
Most departments would see 10 percent cuts from current levels, though a few could have to deal with steeper cuts - such as Precinct 8 Constable Bill Bailey, who is facing a 14.4 percent reduction. Others, such as Sheriff Adrian Garcia, got off lightly. His budget would increase from last year's budget by 6 percent, to $398.6 million. However, it would be $15 million less than Garcia spent this fiscal year, the first time in at least a decade that the sheriff's office reduced its year-over-year spending.
Because three-quarters of the budget is spent on salaries, deep cuts are almost certain to result in layoffs. Constables, in particular, have warned of hundreds of possible layoffs. Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman, under the proposal, would see his budget slashed $3.1 million despite his warning that as many as 100 jobs could be at stake.
And the $138 million in cuts still leaves a budget shortfall, since the county auditor forecasts that Harris County government will have $162 million less to work with.
County budget officer Dick Raycraft said that gap will close in coming weeks as the auditor's office calculates a final revenue estimate. Raycraft also can draw on $42 million in a so-called public improvement contingency fund, a reserve fund that had exceeded $100 million in the last decade.
Of course, Raycraft could recommend additional cuts to balance the budget as well.
"What you don't like to do is see people have to leave jobs or something," Raycraft said. "It focuses the Court and everybody involved in all this that you can get through tough times if you prepare a sustainable course. That's how I see this because you're always thinking you can do better."
Commissioners Court has not raised the overall property tax rate in 15 years and, in fact, lowered it in 2007. In September, Commissioners Court cut the county government tax rate, forgoing $19 million in the process, to offset an increase in the tax rate for the Port of Houston Authority, to expand the Bayport Container Terminal.
Though the public improvements contingency fund sometimes is used to avoid raising the county's tax rate, Raycraft said drawing down the fund will not necessarily put the county at risk of a tax hike because it will have ample time to adjust its finances by September, when property tax rates are set.
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