As population grows in unincorporated Harris County, the sheriff's office looks to keep up

The Harris County Commissioners Court discussed the budget for the Harris County sheriff's office in the upcoming fiscal year. (Hannah Zedaker/Community Impact Newspaper)
The Harris County Commissioners Court discussed the budget for the Harris County sheriff's office in the upcoming fiscal year. (Hannah Zedaker/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Harris County Commissioners Court discussed the budget for the Harris County sheriff's office in the upcoming fiscal year. (Hannah Zedaker/Community Impact Newspaper)

As Harris County prepares to adopt its budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, county commissioners are working to narrow down nearly $113 million in requests for additional funding across various departments.

At a Jan. 28 meeting, commissioners discussed several high-priority budget requests with an eye toward immediate needs, including a request from the Harris County Sheriff's Office to fund 281 new full-time positions.

In a presentation first made to commissioners Dec. 9, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez asked for a budget increase of roughly $20 million, an 8.7% increase that would be used in part to fund 260 additional patrol officers and 21 new employees that would serve in the criminal investigations department.

At the Jan. 28 meeting, Gonzalez addressed the court again, emphasizing the need to add more officers to address domestic violence incidents and traffic enforcement, which he said would be part of a broader effort to reduce traffic fatalities and catch impaired drivers.

In documents submitted to the court, Gonzalez said the additional patrol officers were needed to address law enforcement needs in unincorporated Harris County, which has seen rapid growth over the past decade. According to county data, the population in the unincorporated parts of Harris County grew by more than 500,000 people between 2010-19—from 1.56 million to 2.06 million—compared to an increase of 180,000 in the city of Houston, which clocked in at 2.24 million in 2019. In 2020, the population in unincorporated Harris County could surpass that within the city, officials said.

The Harris County Budget Office recommended funding one-third of the requested amount for officers along with additional funding to help with hiring efforts, including money to increase the number of academy classes the department hosts from two each year to at least four each year. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who formerly served as Harris County sheriff, emphasized the importance of adding classes, noting the office loses around 150 deputies per year due to retirement and other factors.

"I want to make sure the budget reflects also giving you increased academy capacity so you can grow your organization ahead of the attrition rate," he said.

Each deputy class runs for six months and has a capacity of about 60 deputies under the current budget constraints, Gonzalez said. Harris County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said he thinks it is imperative to add new classes promptly to allow the county to get to a point where it graduates between 200-250 people per year.

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he was in favor of the amount of funding recommended by the budget office but suggested some of the funding should go toward raising salaries for deputies already on staff.

"If we don't have the boots on the ground taken care of, all the rest is going to fall apart," he said. "I would like to make sure that we adequately take care of the ones we got before we start adding a bunch of extras."

Gonzalez said he would like to see a plan going forward to ensure the office stays competitive with other agencies.

"At the same time we have operation needs that need to be met with a growing county," he said. "We need more of an expansive approach to do that."

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said a study is underway to figure out the best way to spend additional funding across the county's criminal justice system. She said she was hesitant to invest heavily in new classes until the study was completed, suggesting to instead start a pilot program to address traffic control needs. Hidalgo compared it to the way the county handled a request for additional prosecutors by the district attorney's office last year—a request the county answered by choosing to provide funding for a smaller number of prosecutors to work specifically on environmental crimes.

"So you could build a small group [for] a pilot," Hidalgo said. "The firm can evaluate [the study], and we can decide later if substantive increases in new people is advisable. Should the money go to that, or should the money go to significant pay increases or significant benefit increases or other equipment?"

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he supported including money in the budget specifically to begin the process of adding two new academy classes and requested having a motion at the upcoming Feb. 11 meeting to do so, an idea that Garcia and Cagle both said they were inclined to support. The dollar amount for adding those classes was not immediately known.

Updated budgets for FY 2020-21 will be brought before Commissioners Court at a Feb. 11 meeting where commissioners are expected to vote on whether to adopt them.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


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