…it’s hard to do when there’s no money to do it with.
City and county officials have not met for months to discuss a joint booking facility, long touted as a way to save taxpayers money. It would get the city out of the jail business and filter frequent fliers out of the incarceration pipeline by putting social service representatives at the entrance and exit doors to the county jail.
At a meeting last month at which Commissioners Court approved a plan to transform the county crime lab into a regional one, county officials spoke of their frustration that the city still has not agreed on terms for participation, despite the Houston Police Department’s well-publicized and costly troubles with its own crime lab.
A booking center is on the city’s funded building projects list but not on the county’s. Harris County voters rejected a $195 million bond measure for a jail and booking center in 2007, on the same ballot that they signed off on five other major public projects costing tens of millions of dollars each. The city would have contributed $32 million to that plan. The offer still stands, said Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer.
“If the county came to me tomorrow and said, ‘We’re ready to go for a bond issue and work on the processing center,’ we’re prepared to work with them,” Icken said.
On the crime lab, the tables are turned. County voters approved $80 million for a crime lab on the same ballot in which they rejected the jail and booking center. In this case, it is the city that does not have the money.
The recession also forced both governments into months of budget crisis management and has made long-term planning difficult.
“It’s really not that there’s disagreement. It’s that these things have not made it to the front burner in light of other issues that are going on,” [County Judge Ed] Emmett said.
I don’t even know what to say about this. I’m sure that most people, when they think about governments “tightening its belt” to “live within its means” during bad times, they imagine “fat” being cut out of the budget, because of course every budget has “fat” (which is clearly labeled as such) in it. Long term stuff like this doesn’t cross their minds, but the truth is that “saving” a few dollars now by foregoing or postponing needed investments winds up costing a bunch more in the long term. We do this all the time, because these are the easiest expenses to cut back on, but every time we do we’re just passing the cost on down the line.
The financial squeeze also plays out against the backdrop of a traditional divide between city and county.
The county and city, by state law, have differing missions, offer disparate services and have varying authority to fund and achieve those. The governance is equally different, with the city ruled by a strong mayor and 14-member council, and the county run by a five-member commissioners court in which four members have considerable control over their individual precincts.
On a larger and more philosophical level, the way we do local government really doesn’t make much sense, either. Many of the needs we have are regional, spanning multiple jurisdictions, which makes finding and funding solutions for them a lot harder than it needs to be. Issues of transportation, air quality, crime, and so on don’t stop at arbitrary geographical borders, but the ability to deal with them often does, which is what leads to things like the city of Houston threatening to sue manufacturing plants elsewhere in Harris County, and the state Legislature stepping in with a bill to prevent them from doing so. If we had to do it all again from scratch, a regional government that grew and adapted with a growing population as it spreads out all over the place would have a lot of appeal. But that ain’t going to happen any time soon.