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County kicks off damage control after Abbott yanks funding

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has given county programs whose funding was recently axed by Gov. Greg Abbott a new lease on life, albeit a temporary one.

On Tuesday, the court voted to keep all nine programs running through May 15 at an estimated cost of $100,000 per month.

“We don’t go looking for programs to pull down grants. We look for grants that will help us fund our programs,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told a scrum of reporters several hours before the vote. “These are good, solid programs.”

In the meantime, a private fundraiser fronted by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, with help from the nonprofit Austin Community Foundation, pulled in $100,644 by Tuesday afternoon. The Travis County #StrongerTogether campaign claims that the proceeds will be used for the sole purpose of maintaining the threatened programs.

The campaign, as well as other county supporters, has framed Abbott’s move as an attack on women, children and veterans who benefit from the programs. The roster of initiatives funded by the grants includes a family violence outreach program, a veterans court and a youth substance abuse program. Commissioner Margaret Gómez noted that as many as 5,000 residents participate in the programs.

The court’s vote on Tuesday also preserves for the time being 14 county employees with positions linked to the programs. Those workers will be given notice that their jobs now have a fast-approaching expiration date.

However, there is a chance that the doomsday scenario could be staved off. The court included in its action instructions to staff to initiate a “rebudgeting process” to examine ways to keep the programs funded within the parameters of the county budget. In the meantime, the county’s Human Resources and Management Division will work with the employees to “to explore their options.”

“Under normal procedure, when a grant goes away, these grant-funded positions go away,” Eckhardt said before the vote. “Without those positions, these programs would not move forward. So we are going to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, bringing in our judiciary as well as our Justice Planning division(s) and our Planning and Budget office to see what we can do.”

Up to 18 full-time positions lost their sources of funding after Abbott rescinded the grants. The court voted to permanently eliminate four of those, which remained unstaffed as of Tuesday.

Abbott canceled the $1.5 million in Office of the Governor Criminal Justice Division grant money last Wednesday in response to Sheriff Sally Hernandez formally enacting her new policy regarding federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests.

Under that ICE program, agents consult fingerprint databases of recently arrested people. If the agents have probable cause to believe that a person is an undocumented immigrant, they ask the sheriff’s office to hold that person for further investigation, even if the inmate has made bail or has otherwise served his or her time.

Hernandez steadfastly contends that only a judge can order law enforcement officers to hold anyone at the jail, and therefore she will comply with ICE requests only in extreme cases involving murder, sexual assault or human trafficking.

However, Abbott maintains that the policy qualifies the county as a “sanctuary” community, something that top state Republicans have placed in their crosshairs. Texas Senate Bill 4, which is intended to prohibit local law enforcement from opting not to participate in federal immigration enforcement, was approved by the state Senate on Tuesday evening.

After Tuesday’s Commissioners Court vote, members of the court teed off on Abbott, starting with Commissioner Brigid Shea.

“I think this is particularly unacceptable in that it does appear to be retribution to try and hurt the citizens of Travis County who are being helped by programs which, in many cases, have won awards and recognition and distinction for being outstanding programs in their field,” she said.

Gómez agreed, noting the long reach of the programs. “Five thousand citizens will be affected by these cuts – women, children and veterans who are who are looking to Travis County to get their lives back on track, and so I’m saddened by that.”

Commissioner Jeff Travillion offered his own advice for Abbott. “If the governor wants to take resources, maybe what he should do is set up an apparatus in his office to serve the people that he’s harming.”

The court’s lone Republican, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, was off the dais on Tuesday. The court voted 4-0 to approve the extension of the programs.

Photo by John Flynn.

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