Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jail dominates Harris County Sheriff budget whether candidates acknowledge reality or not

Big Jolly has posted a hagiography candidate interview featuring Louis Guthrie, the GOP frontrunner to challenge Adrian Garcia for Harris County Sheriff, who Jolly declares is "a natural born leader," adding that he "couldn’t blame [Guthrie] if he thought I had a man-crush on him."

With Jolly temporarily blinded by his love-goggles, Grits wanted to hone in particularly on the utterly unrealistic discussion of the budget from the challenger. Ironically, his stances mirror positions taken and promises made by Garcia when he first ran for Sheriff, most of which crashed upon the rocky shores of economic reality almost immediately after he took office. Here's the segment (in full) of BJ's post on the budget:
About the budget, I’ve mentioned before (here and here) that most of the primary candidates think that the budget must be increased. Mr. Guthrie was a bit more nuanced in our discussion than he was in the forums – during the forums, he stated that his relationship with Harris County Commissioners Court would result in a larger budget. I asked him point blank if that meant that the Court was playing partisan politics and not giving Sheriff Garcia the resources he needed. His answer was no, that the budget under Garcia had grown and would continue to grow. What he meant was that the Court would see that he was prioritizing the resources better than Garcia and they would be more apt to give him what he asked for versus them seeing that Garcia was building up his command staff and not boots on the ground.
A glaring example of what Sheriff Garcia has done was noted in the Houston Chronicle today in a report by Anita Hassan:
Also, county budget cuts have suspended testing in the auto theft division for now. But overall, testing can help to solve more crimes as well as prevent them, Wilson said.
“If you catch one of those guys (car burglars), you can prevent dozens of them over a period of months,” he said. “They are out there every single day driving those parking lots in every part of this city and county looking for targets. If you get one of them off the streets, there’s no telling how many you may have prevented.”
I asked Mr. Guthrie about this report and he replied:
“Touch DNA is just one of many exciting new techniques now used to help solve crimes that were previously relegated to the “closed with no investigation” file.  While the current Sheriff has created most of his own budgeting problems, cutting funding for programs that help put burglars behind bars is a poor choice for the taxpayers.  Garcia could easily trim fat from his bloated command staff and instead put dollars to work solving crimes and putting more boots on the ground.  That would have a real impact of improving public safety in Harris County.” Louis Guthrie
We talked about the budget for quite some time. I was impressed with his detailed knowledge of how the department works, down to the supplies issued each deputy. I was a bit surprised by this because his highest rank in the department had been Lieutenant and budgeting is typically done by the Captains. He told me that he took it upon himself as a Lt. to break down the numbers passed down by his Captain because he wanted to be certain that taxpayer money was being utilized efficiently.
Two things jump out at Grits here. First is Guthrie's utterly unrealistic portrayal of the budget, pretending that demoting a few senior commanders will allow him to put more "boots on the ground" at a time when the county is paying millions annually in overtime to staff the jail (which is the 800 lbs. gorilla dominating the Sheriff's budget). I replied thusly in the comments:
Hey Big Spender!! So Garcia’s budget is too big, says Guthrie, but he would increase it more? I call BS.

In reality (i.e, outside the campaign trail), the Sheriff’s Office is primarily about running the jail. Garcia cited all the same data and made all the same promises about more patrols when he first ran, then once elected he had to confront reality and had to spend all his budget cushion on overtime for jailers to meet minimum state standards. What “efficiencies” will Guthrie install to change that situation? Nada. Command salaries are a drop in the bucket compared to overtime. If you or anybody believe Guthrie won’t be subject to PRECISELY the same budget dynamic, you’ve got another think coming. Such campaign promises are completely detached from reality.
Voters may not recall, but Sheriff Garcia rode into office four years ago promising to boost patrols in unincorporated parts of the county, then discovered after ascending to the job that his main responsibility is managing the jail and every extra dollar he could lay his hands on had to go to pay jailers' overtime. If Guthrie replaces him, four years from now he'll face a challenger making the same BS criticisms and promises because what he's suggesting is not real and cannot happen given current budget realities. These are not partisan issues, nor even ideological ones. They are difficult, practical economic and management questions on which neither Guthrie nor any other candidate may legitimately claim higher ground. Like Garcia when he made the same promises in 2008, either Guthrie doesn't understand the big picture or he's just blowing smoke up voters' collective ass.

Finally, BJ references an interesting story out of the Houston Chronicle on using "touch DNA" to solve property crimes, criticizing Garcia for not using the technology for car burglaries after the Commissioners Court cut the program's budget. I understand identifying something voters don't like (car burglaries) and blaming one's opponent for it is a typical campaign tactic, but the critique misunderstands who controls the budget strings at the Sheriff's office. The county commissioners court makes that call, not him. Besides, it's difficult to overstate the extent to which using touch DNA in nonviolent offenses would quickly overwhelm crime labs and property rooms. As Grits wrote in January, "The advent of 'touch DNA' and the expansion of DNA evidence to nonviolent offenses like burglary mean the near-term growth potential for DNA examiners may be limited only by how much state and local governments are willing to pay for them." In Harris County, for the foreseeable future, those demands for funds must get in line behind overtime spending for jailers. Changing the party designation of the Sheriff from D to R wouldn't alter that dynamic in the slightest.

RELATED: Here's Charles Kuffner's interview with incumbent Sheriff Adrian Garcia.


Alan Bernstein said...

Without commenting about the campaign politics aspect of your interesting post . . .

Sheriff Garcia did not build up the command staff; the number of majors did not change from the previous administration. Plus, any civilian positions,including mine, were approved by Commissioners Court.

What postponed the sheriff's plan to put more boots on the ground was the county-wide hiring freeze in reaction to a dip in county property values and thus a dip in revenue.

Meanwhile the Sheriff's Office is on pace to cut overtime in half. Guess what? More boots are coming.

This message was posted to all employees a week ago:

'This morning, Harris County Commissioners Court gave final approval of all county government budgets for Fiscal Year 2013, which started March 1. The Sheriff's Office budget is about $392 million. Last month, Sheriff Garcia told the budget office staff that a higher amount of money would be needed to "hold the line." But follow-up talks between the Budget Office and the HCSO led to changes that significantly lessened some burdens on the HCSO budget.

'The result is a budget that will allow this agency to replace personnel who leave during the next 12 months. (The county-wide hiring freeze that started in October 2009 had not allowed the HCSO to make up for such attrition). Also, more detention officer positions will be created on a phase-in basis. That will allow deputy positions to gradually be moved out of the Detentions Bureau for strategic deployment elsewhere in the HCSO. Sheriff Garcia will announce further details later.

'The many HCSO employees who worked hard to achieve these positive changes deserve our thanks.'

Alan Bernstein
Director of Public Affairs

Hook Em Horns said...

Adrian Garcia and Pat Lykos both understand that their re-election will be decided by the voters of Harris County, not by the malcontents who serve under them.

That's not saying that either of them or both of them should be re-elected, it's a simple observation that those serving under ANY administration are generally hard to please and challengers generally get their campaign talking points from these very malcontents.

Anonymous said...

Garcia's flack, Alan Bernstein, weighs in.

As for Guthrie, he was fired for extremely poor judgement. Why would I want him running the show?

Alan Bernstein said...

Yes, I weighed in with my real name and my title at the sheriff's office. Ahem.

Anonymous said...

Alan Bernstein,

The sheriff has the power to push for citations instead of arrests for petty possession charges, etc. yet continues to refuse to use the authority. Knowing that utilizing a citation over an arrest saves taxpayer dollars (and sheriff office funds) and allows for more boots on the ground instead of boots down to transport to IPC (figure a two-hour downtime for every petty possession arrest plus IPC booking manhours, jailer manhours, etc.), why does the sheriff not take a leadership position instead of ignoring the issue? With, I'm guessing, 8 percent of bookings being petty possession charges and another large percentage related to the other charges that citing is available for, isn't it about time the sheriff - with your assistance in marketing - took the lead? Thanks in advance for any response.

Anonymous said...

It is a political game that the tax payer had to pay. Garcia and Lykos are trying to get re-elected by rejecting the charge and reducing the sentences. The jail is a paradise for the criminal. You have to feel like a third world citizen compared to these criminal. They have first class service: every two or three hours for blood pressure check and medication. They claimed all kinds of illnesses to have their "high" medications to feel good while in jail. The amount of money spent on the criminal/medical staff/medication/bloating executive staff is the biggest but they will not admit that.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3/22, 11:23, of course they'll admit high meds costs - the Harris County jail is the biggest mental health facility in the state!

Alan, I still say the commissioners court, not the sheriff will ultimately make the budget call whether to expand patrol resources. This argument is happening in the wrong race; the Sheriff does nothing more than make a recommendation, which as you well know the commissioners court frequently rejects out of hand.

Anonymous said...

There is something sticking out here that is not being seen. The hiring freeze occurred in mid 2009. Adrian was elected at the beginning of 2008. He had a year and a half to get more boots on the ground but instead patrol officers diminished and are still below the levels they were at when he started.