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Travis County bush

Key justice programs survive fight between county, governor

Wednesday, May 10, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Crucial county programs that lost funding over a row with Gov. Greg Abbott will be able to stay online through at least October thanks to some deep budgetary scouring.

On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court approved a proposed package of streamlining measures that will keep the lights on at 12 key specialty courts, juvenile justice programs and victims services initiatives. The list includes the Veterans Court, the DWI Court, Family Violence Accelerated Victim Outreach Program and the Juvenile Probation Department’s Leadership Academy.

Abbott hacked $1.5 million in Office of the Governor Criminal Justice Division grant funding for those programs in late January in response to Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s decision to reduce her office’s voluntary compliance with federal immigration detainer requests. Abbott has declared that the new policy qualifies Travis County as a “sanctuary” community for undocumented immigrants.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has repeatedly framed the cuts as political retribution that threatened to rob the community of vital services aimed at reducing recidivism and providing a safety net for vulnerable members of the community.

The Commissioners Court voted in February to keep funding the programs through May at an estimated cost of $100,000 per month. In the meantime, the court directed staff to pore over the books to find opportunities to shave off enough costs to keep the programs active through the end of the current fiscal year in September.

On Tuesday, members of the Planning and Budget Office presented to the court the fruits of their three-month task. Budget Director Travis Gatlin explained that through attrition of unstaffed positions, consolidation of certain services and other means, his team had discovered a way to reduce the annual cost of the 12 programs from $1.5 million to $1.1 million. He estimated that the programs effectively save the county $467,800 each year just by keeping participants out of jail.

Gatlin said that the money to cover the costs through the end of September – a total of $800,000 – will come out of the budgets of departments that run the programs.

“I think the fact that all the departments have agreed to internally fund this with their existing budget and make the changes this year really highlights just how important a priority these programs were,” Gatlin said.

The court and Planning and Budget Office staff will still need to flesh out a less improvised strategy to maintain the programs, a process that will be included in the development of the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget.

The court ultimately voted unanimously to keep the programs online through November 15, or a month and a half after the FY 2016-17 funding is scheduled to run out. To fill that gap, the commissioners also gave their full support to Eckhardt’s offer to write a letter to the board controlling the Travis County Stronger Together charity that began raising money for the county programs in the wake of Abbott’s cuts. Eckhardt said she would request $133,000 from the organization, a sum it claims to have raised.

After the unanimous votes to enact the necessary cost-saving measures, Eckhardt released a statement saying the county approached the process “deliberatively” and that the programs will continue to operate “at their current levels.”

“Travis County remains committed to programs that are effective, efficient and fair,” she continued. “If we had the partnership of the Governor’s office, we would expand these valuable programs and provide services to even more of our vulnerable, at-risk populations. Although the Governor’s partnership has been withdrawn, our work goes on serving the People of Travis County.”

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