A couple of things strike me about this story. First, the decision by Bexar judges shows they're still utterly out of touch with what's going on at the probation department, worrying more about budgets for their own individual court staff more than providing supervision for convicted defendants they've allowed to stay in the community. That's a bad public safety decision. The judges serve as the board of the county probation department, but in Bexar the current crop of jurists has seldom behaved like people that understand they have a fiduciary responsibility toward the department, instead worrying only about their own feifdoms in each individual courtroom.
Aimee Sharp, finance director of community supervision and corrections, said the department has seen a 28 percent drop in court fees since Bexar County courts-at-law judges restructured in May the way court fees are allocated.
The court fees that probationers pay now go first to the courts before any of the money is distributed to community supervision. If probationers don't pay the full amount of the court fees, community supervision may not get any of the allotment, according to Sharp.
She also said because judges are not inclined to require probationers to pay off probation fees at the completion of their program, community supervision is not receiving its share.
“We were really caught by surprise when this happened,” she said.
The probation department has been dipping into its fund balance — used for emergencies — to compensate for the loss of fees. In May, it had a fund balance of about $655,000, about 5 percent of its total budget.
The department receives half of its funding from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and court fees fund the remainder of the $13 million budget.
The state recently informed the Bexar County probation department that its state funding would decrease by 3.15 percent — or $170,762, which is the equivalent of four probation officers.
If the restructured fee collection continues, the department could expect a $700,000 decrease in its share of fees for an entire fiscal year, which runs from October to September.
The decrease was the unintended consequence of the judges' efforts to raise revenues and avoid layoffs in their courts, Fitzgerald said.
Also, I want to learn more about the assertion (which I'm not sure I believe) that "The state recently informed the Bexar County probation department that its state funding would decrease by 3.15 percent." All the data I'd seen from the recent legislative session said probation funding was increased overall statewide. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's budget analysis, during the 81st legislative session this spring:
- Approximately $11.1 million was allocated for projected community supervision population growth.
- $13.1 million was allocated for a 3.5% pay increase in FY 2010 and an additional 3.5% salary increase in FY 2011 for community supervision officers and direct care staff. A similar increase (about 3.5% in each year of the biennium) was also provided to correctional and parole officers. ...
- The "Community Supervision Officers and Direct Care Staff Salary Increases Rider" appropriates $13.1 million over FY 2010-2011 and specifies that “It is the intent of the legislature that community supervision officers and direct care staff receive a 3.5% salary increase in fiscal year 2010 and an additional 3.5% salary increase in fiscal year 2011.”
A healthy dose of skepticism is required because of Bill Fitzgerald's well-earned reputation as a union-busting, retaliatory manager who's not above terminating or harassing employees who're whistleblowers or union sympathizers. Is there really a budget crisis at the Bexar probation department or is this just an excuse for Fitzgerald to get rid of more internal enemies? That's the unspoken question looming over this announcement, and it deserves an honest answer before any layoffs begin.