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Travis County courts feel impact of Legislature’s budget cuts

Friday, August 12, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

With the Texas Legislature signing off on a FY2012-13 budget in May that will include $15 billion in cuts, Travis County will feel the belt-tightening, as the Commissioners Court found out at a budget meeting Wednesday. Generally the county gets about $44.3 million from the state, but county staff is estimating that number will be more like $40 million in FY2012, according to Katie Peterson of the county’s Budget and Planning Office.


The estimated $4 million in cuts includes between $1.1 and 1.4 million in lost general fund revenue resulting from a reduction in the county’s portion of the mixed-beverage tax. After that, the worst-hit departments were Juvenile Probation, Adult Probation, and the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, Peterson told the commissioners. “All three of those departments will be handling those cuts internally and will not be asking for additional funds at this time.”


At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners heard about three programs – the Family Drug Treatment Court, the Veterans Court, and the Drug Diversion Court — that are asking for additional funds to deal with cuts from grant programs funded by the Criminal Justice Division of the Governor’s office. Overall, said Peterson, “their bucket of grant money got cut about 55 percent” in the new state budget – or $540,181.


All three courts are currently in limbo, waiting to hear back from the state about how much grant money each will be receiving officially. On Wednesday morning, the county did hear back from the Governor’s office with some preliminary, unofficial numbers. To avoid a lapse in service, representatives from each of the three courts requested that the commissioners allocate reserve funds.


Judge Darlene Byrne, the initial presiding judge over the Family Drug Treatment Court, asked the commissioners to allocate $193,169 – the amount the program requested from the state – in the event that the grant award is either delayed, as it has been in previous years, or not granted. That number, Byrne said, represents the “gold level of service,” not the amount she believes the state will eventually grant the program.


“We’re not asking to expand anything, to get any bigger than we were last year,” said Byrne. “We’re just trying to maintain last year’s efforts.”


The email her program received from the Office of the Governor before the meeting offered a preliminary, unofficial funding number of $119,195.


One of the problems with the grant funding system is timing discrepancies between the county’s budget cycle and the state’s, said Byrne. “What always happens is it never times out well as it relates to our county fiscal year, versus the time when we get the grant funds in,” he said. So, in addition to the earmark request, Byrne also asked for permission to continue from the county and approximately $22,500 “to fill that gap between when that grant funding comes in and our fiscal year.”


The court would reimburse the county for that money upon receiving its state grant funds.


Asked when she expects those funds to come in, Byrne said that it will probably happen in the winter, but she couldn’t be sure. “There’s no rhyme or reason on that date,” she said.


State funding ends August 31.


Judge Mike Denton, who runs the brand-new Veterans Court, expressed a similar sentiment to Byrne’s. “I’m asking for a little security,” he said. “I’m asking that you put money into reserves to help cover the Veterans Court.”


Denton’s request for earmarked funds in case the state delays funding the program or doesn’t continue funding it at all totals $216,000. Like the head of the Family Drug Treatment Court, Denton received an unofficial offer from the state for the program: $155,000. That leaves the court about $66,000 short.


“$155,000 would pretty much cover personnel costs, but it would not cover treatment, attorney fees, and other operating costs,” Denton said. “Hopefully we will only need $66,000, but for now we’re asking for the whole $216,000 in reserves.”


There was good news from the Governor’s Office for at least one court. Judge Julie Kocurek, presiding judge of the Travis County Criminal District Courts, told commissioners unofficially that the Adult Drug Diversion Court would be receiving all of its requested $132,702 in grant funding.


Still, Kocurek said, until that number becomes official, “as a safety net, as a precaution, we ask that you put this money in reserve.”

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