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Bexar County judge tells sheriff 'we spend a helluva lot of money on you' as budget vote looms

Commissioners at their Sept. 6, 2022 meeting.jpg
Brian Kirkpatrick
/
Texas Public Radio
Bexar County Commissioners at their Sept. 6, 2022 meeting.

Bexar County Commissioners were expected to adopt a balanced $2.8 billion budget that holds the line on property taxes.

A public hearing on the spending plan and the property tax rate needed to fund it was held Tuesday morning in Commissioners Court on the second floor of the county courthouse.

The most debated portion of the budget has been funding for the sheriff's department.

Several residents, law enforcement personnel, and Sheriff Javier Salazar himself turned out at last Tuesday's commissioners meeting to call on commissioners to spend more on law enforcement.

County Judge Nelson Wolff blasted the sheriff for not filling empty-funded vacancies, including more than 200 at the jail, where overtime staffing costs hit $12 million last year. Most of the sheriff's office budget and staffing is at the jail.

"We've been spending a helluva lot of money on you, every year. And we're spending a lot of money on constables. We added 36 last year. Their law enforcement. Sixty-three percent of our budget is law enforcement," Wolff told the sheriff last Tuesday before a packed commissioners court.

Wolff did not mention that county doesn’t actually know if it is spending enough on the jail. The county has failed to release an audit of the jail’s needs, which it commissioned from two independent auditing companies. High costs are expected from the audits in terms of recommended staffing levels and infrastructure costs.

The Deputy Sheriffs Association of Bexar County — which has been pushing for increased spending — has said the county manager is suppressing the document to avoid this budget cycle.

The sheriff responded that the call for increased funding at the meeting came largely from the public and not from him.

"I can see that you're upset, but I wasn't the one saying that," the sheriff told the judge.

The 81-year-old Wolff, who has been county judge for more than two decades, rejected the sheriff's comments and defended the court's record on law enforcement funding.

"So many things were misstated here. You went right along with them," Wolff said to Salazar about speakers who criticized the court.

The sheriff's department has asked for more investigators as unincorporated areas boom with new population and more crime. The sheriff said two dozen empty but funded patrol positions will soon be filled with cadets from the deputy academy.

Wolff said the court was willing to work with the sheriff on staffing but said the sheriff had staffing issues he had to address himself.

County Manager David Smith in a memo to the sheriff's department said manpower for the agency would remain the same for the coming year, but funding was going up by $4 million, or an increase of 3%. Smith has also said the sheriff has not provided the data needed to assess staffing needs within the agency.

The sheriff's office was not the only issue in the budget.

It includes 17 new positions for the district attorney's office and five positions at the overworked medical examiner's office. The positions are needed to keep up with an increased workload brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and mass trauma events, such as the elementary school shooting in Uvalde in May and the migrant truck deaths in June.

The medical examiner told commissioners this summer the new positions had to be approved to maintain their accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

It also includes $720 million in operating costs and $716 million in capital projects, such as a new Precinct Four satellite office, a new facility for the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service, a new workforce training center, a new crime lab, and jail improvements.

The budget is boosted by $319 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The current property tax rate of 29 cents per $100 valuation will remain the same because the property tax base continues to grow with new home and business construction. The Bexar Appraisal District reports existing and new property values increased by more than 7% to $13.6 billion.

In an effort to provide property tax relief, commissioners approved a 20% homestead exemption in June. It will result in annual average savings of $96.

The overall annual county budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, is $32 million more or 6% higher than last year.

Paul Flahive contributed to this report.

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Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at brian@tpr.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian