Harris County commissioners opted to use a $9 million general fund surplus to help cover deficits in the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office, although the latter received the funding in a split vote Jan. 31.

Harris County is projected to finish the first quarter of the 2022-23 fiscal year with a surplus despite a tighter budget being adopted by commissioners Sept. 13, according to a Jan. 31 presentation from the Office of Management and Budget.

Commissioners unanimously awarded $5.6 million to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 31. The District Attorney’s Office was granted $4.3 million in funding in a 3-1-1 vote, with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis voting in opposition and Judge Lina Hidalgo abstaining. In total, the two offices were granted $9.9 million.

The deficits for the HCSO and the DA’s office were driven by health care cost increases due to the county adopting a no-new-revenue tax rate in October, according to David Berry, who serves as the county's administrator and budget officer. However, $3.5 million of the DA’s office deficit was driven by raises given to employees after the budget was approved in September, Berry said.

“It's very difficult to have true controls over how money is spent in [an] elected official's office,” Berry said.

Before the vote was taken, Hidalgo expressed concern about the precedent it would set to grant the DA’s office more funding after it awarded “unbudgeted raises.”

“To me, this seems like extortion,” Hidalgo said. “I abstained from this motion and beg that [commissioners] come up with a better solution.”

Hidalgo said she supported providing funding for raises in the DA’s office and other departments before the FY 2022-23 budget was approved.

Of the funding given to the HCSO, $1.5 million will cover the department’s deficit, and $4.1 million will allow the department to hire 120 sheriff patrol positions, according to the Jan. 31 presentation. The new positions will return the HCSO to the number of positions it had in FY 2021-22.

For the DA’s office, $1.8 million in funding will be used to cover the department’s deficit, according to the Jan. 31 presentation. To restore the office to FY 2021-22 staffing levels, $2.5 million will be used to hire 30 assistant district attorney positions.

As of the first quarter of FY 2022-23, the Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office also had a budget deficit, which totaled $1.2 million, according to the Jan. 31 presentation. Commissioners unanimously approved $1.2 million for the tax assessor-collector’s debt, and granted $550,000 and $450,000 for the County Attorney’s Office and the Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity, respectively, to hire new employees.

Other county offices ended the quarter with a general fund surplus, including Universal Services, Public Health Services, and the precinct 4 and 5 constable offices.

Rachel Carlton contributed to this report.