The County Connection: Our Hospitals and Law Enforcement are On the Line
The County Connection
Lina Hidalgo | Harris County Judge
On September 13th, two Harris County Commissioners declined to show up to a vital Commissioners Court meeting to approve the budget and funding for the next fiscal year for all departments and services across Harris County. Due to the Commissioners’ intentional absence, Court did not reach quorum, or the required four commissioners present. The result is that the Harris County budget will revert to over $200 million less than what had been meticulously planned for by our departments. When the Commissioners had more chances to appear in Court and finally approve the budget on September 27th and October 11th, they again declined to attend.
My colleagues’ absence would force Harris Health System to operate with a deficit of roughly $45 million this year. Patients at Harris Health hospitals and clinics would have to be turned away, and private hospitals would have to absorb the demand for care, meaning emergency room wait times would get even longer at private hospitals across the County. The deficit would lead to delays to the expansion of operations at the Quentin Mease facility, impeding nearly 100 colonoscopies (cancer screenings) per day from happening. We currently have a 3,000 person backlog for these cancer screenings.
The shortfall of funds would affect our law enforcement — the loss of funding for the Sheriff’s patrol is the equivalent of 175 entry-level deputies. An entire cadet class of 60 new police officers may have to cancel their start date next month. And 35 additional investigators that were budgeted for would not be added to the Sheriff’s team. All frontline law enforcement officers will only receive a portion of the substantial raises that had been promised them and budgeted for them. The District Attorney would have a $5.4 million reduction, which is equivalent to not having at least 39 frontline prosecutor positions.
Our Veteran’s Services Department will have to eliminate $300,000 of their services budget. The Children’s Assessment Center, a facility that provides services to the most vulnerable among us – sexually abused children – would see a reduction of nearly half a million dollars in funding that could go towards outreach and reaching children in need. Our public health system could stand to lose up to $150 million in grants that require matching funds for food safety, water quality, and virus-fighting programs.
In short, the results would be devastating to Harris County. The consequences would be felt by vulnerable children and adults, frontline employees and institutions doing the hard work of providing quality services on tight budgets. The Commissioners will have another opportunity this coming Tuesday, October 18 to show up to the hearing, debate the options, and participate in a vote. I urge my colleagues to attend and fully fund these vital and necessary services for our residents. The funding also amounts to a 1% tax rate cut, the lowest tax rate in years.
Lives, jobs, and services our residents depend on for their health and safety are on the line. Let’s pass this budget.
Growing Harris County’s Access to Mental Health Support
Mental health is an issue we can no longer put on the back burner. During the pandemic, about four in ten adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, four times as many as in 2019. According to CDC data, in 2021 more than a third (37%) of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health. Disturbingly, Texas ranks last among all other states when it comes to access to mental health support services and, in the last year, the state has cut $117 million in mental health funding, further increasing the gap between support services and the individuals who depend on them. For the least fortunate folks, interaction with the police, arrest and/or jail is often the only way to access mental health services. The largest mental health provider in Texas is the Harris County Jail.
To combat this impending mental health crisis in Harris County, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court last month passed a $14.3 million initiative. Through a multi-million dollar allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, the Behavioral and Mental Health Program will increase the quantity of trained mental health providers so they are better able to retain and hire more trained staff. The initiative will also recruit more high school and college students into the mental health profession, add school counselors, and will help connect residents with mental health and substance abuse resources that will aid in their recovery.
This is just another way Harris County is working to help improve lives for our residents. In August Harris County established The Brighter Futures for Harris County Kids program, which has invested more than $80 million dollars in early childhood education, childcare, and maternal health (read more below). Commissioner’s Court has also invested over $1 billion in crime prevention and justice programs including the HART (Holistic Assistance Response Teams) program, which dispatches trained behavioral and mental health responders, instead of busy police officers, to calls involving mental health and substance abuse issues, allowing police officers to focus on violent crime.
New COVID Booster Now Available, COVID Threat Level System Changes to Three Tiers
Good news, Harris County – the new, updated COVID booster is now available. The new vaccine targets both the original strain of COVID and the new Omicron variants which are currently dominant across the U.S., and is available for everyone 12 years of age or older who have received at least the first 2 shots. If it has been at least two months since your last COVID vaccine or booster, you’re eligible to receive the booster through Harris County Public Health (HCPH), your regular medical provider, or from a retailer like Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, or HEB. To get the booster through HCPH, you can walk in Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Insurance is not required. VisitReadyHarris.org to find HCPH locations or call 832-927-8787 to schedule an appointment for your booster shot.
Also, due to lower hospitalization levels despite large surges in cases we have seen in recent months, our COVID threat level system has changed. Redesigned to align with new CDC guidelines, the renamed Community Level System does not have a “red” level, and case rates are more influential than hospitalizations in the move across levels. The goal of this system is to inform the community when cases are high so that individuals can make their own decisions about their willingness to be exposed to the virus. The new three tier system – Low (Green), Medium (Yellow), and High (Orange) – uses case rate, hospital admissions and ICU beds to determine how widespread COVID transmission is in our community. All of this information, as well as other important metrics like wastewater levels and vaccination rates, will continue to be available on the sameCOVID data hub that we’ve had for the majority of COVID.
And, in September, we moved to the Low (Green) level! Help keep transmission levels down by getting the new updated booster if you’re eligible. You can visitReadyHarris.org to find HCPH locations or call 832-927-8787 to schedule an appointment for your booster shot.
Harris County Secures $750 million for Flood Control Infrastructure and Mitigation Funding from Texas General Land Office
Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that the Texas General Land Office would be allocating Harris County $750 million for flood control infrastructure and mitigation funding after having previously denied the County any funding at all. The change comes after extensive efforts by the County for a fair allocation of funds. Judge Hidalgo released the following statement:
“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made, which is a giant leap forward from zero dollars just 15 months ago. When we first received the news back in May of 2021 that the GLO was not going to give us any of these federal funds, we were shocked. Zero dollars for the hardest hit area in the state made no sense. Harris County bore the brunt of about 50% of the damage from Hurricane Harvey and continues to be at risk.
We’ve been working tirelessly to get this done, from personally traveling to Washington, DC to meet with Secretary Marcia Fudge of U.S. Housing and Urban Development, to speaking with Commissioner George P. Bush of the General Land Office, to hiring special counsel, to enlisting the incredible support of County staff across numerous departments.
$750 million is a great start, but there is still much more work to be done and more funds needed. We continue to fight for our full and fair share of dollars for both Harris County and the City of Houston.”
Kinder Foundation Donates $100 Million for Buffalo Bayou East Expansion Plan in Historic City-County-Foundation Partnership
The Buffalo Bayou Trails provide jobs, beauty, and opportunities for recreation to countless Harris County residents and visitors to our region. And a new historic investment to extend the trails eastward will make the trail system even more accessible — to the historically marginalized communities in the greater East End and Fifth Ward.
In September, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner’s Court accepted a $100 million donation from the Kinder Foundation that will facilitate the largest park expansion in Harris County and Houston since the creation of Discovery Green. The $310 million Buffalo Bayou Partnership East Master Plan will focus on the development and transformation of Buffalo Bayou East, a section of the bayou stretching from US 59 to the Port of Houston Turning Basin. When work on Buffalo Bayou East is complete, there will be more than 40 miles of new and improved waterfront trails and on-and-off street bikeways, more than 200 acres of parks and public spaces, seven new boat landings and seven new pedestrian bridges.
In addition to the $100 million donation from the Kinder Foundation, the County is contributing $24 million, the City of Houston is contributing $83.5 million, $14 million will come from federal housing credits, and the Partnership is contributing $37 million and committing to raise the remaining $88.5 million. The project is expected to start in mid-2022. All capital projects will be completed within 10 years, or by mid 2032. All park projects will be completed by December 31, 2027.
Harris County Public Health Receives $2 Million Grant Award from the U.S. Department of Justice to Help Reduce Gun Crime and Other Violence
Harris County has been awarded a $1,999,715 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Program (OJP) to support our Community Health and Violence Prevention Services. Our county is one of 52 communities and agencies across the country to receive funding under the OJP’s Community Intervention and Prevention Initiative to reduce gun violence and other serious offenses.
The awards, funded in part through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, mark a historic investment in community violence intervention programs from the Justice Department and will develop and expand the infrastructure needed to build community safety and strengthen neighborhoods. The grant will also support holistic, cross-agency collaborations; seed new efforts and fund expansion plans in both community-based organizations and local government agencies; provide funding and assistance through intermediaries to build the capacity of smaller organizations; offer technical aid to jurisdictions that do not receive federal funding; and invest in research and evaluation to better understand what works to reduce violence. The grant will support Harris County’s efforts to create safer, stronger, and more livable communities for our residents.
Harris County Approves Over $1 Million for Gun Buyback Events
Every gun taken off the street is potentially one less gun incident. Whether that be a suicide, a violent crime, or an accidental discharge, lives can be saved because of these preventative programs. Last month, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court approved approximately $1.1M to host up to eight gun buyback events in conjunction with the Commissioner Precincts. The gun buyback events allow gun owners to voluntarily and safely surrender personal firearms to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in exchange for gift cards. The goal is to take unwanted firearms off the streets and reduce the possibility that they could be a hazard at home or wind up in the hands of a future crime perpetrator. The funding will be used to purchase gift cards, conduct checks on weapons collected, and advertise and conduct the events for an estimated 4,000 participants. Already, the first two events have been a success. Watch this space for more information on gun buyback events as they are scheduled.
Harris County Launches Historic Brighter Futures Initiative to Assist Harris County Families, Children, and Caregivers
In early August, Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the $84 million Brighter Futures for Harris County Kids Initiative, the largest allocation of funding for children in Harris County history and the largest known investment of ARPA dollars by any county or city in the nation for early childhood development and education.
“Never before has Harris County had this focus on children,” said Judge Hidalgo. “These investments will have ripple effects that will make the future brighter for our children, our economy, and our entire region.”
The strategic package of county programs and resources will invest in three key areas: early developmental programs to achieve brain and language milestones, programs to support new parents’ ability to care for the health of their babies and for themselves, and increasing child care and early childhood education throughout the county. You can learn more about all of the County’s work for children at HarrisCountyKids.com.
Harris County Launches New Website to Track Law Enforcement Spending
Like most jurisdictions across America, Harris County saw an increase in violent crime during the first two years of the pandemic, a 26% increase in violent crime in 2020 alone. But here in Harris County, we are working around the clock to fight this increase in crime in a smart, tough and sustainable way. Between 2018 and budget planning for 2023, Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Court have approved an increase in law enforcement funding every year and invested at least $170 million in additional law enforcement funding. This year, the County has preliminarily approved a budget of $1.4 billion for public safety, the most ever allocated for justice and safety initiatives in Harris County. The budget includes increases for every law enforcement agency in the County, including every Constable Precinct and the District Attorney. Despite false information circulating about defunding the police, the County is actually putting more into law enforcement than ever before.
And now, all of these numbers are available publicly on the web. Last month, Harris County launchedSafeHarris.com, a website to publicly track all law enforcement agencies in the County and their dollar allocations. The website is part of the County’s efforts to make county work more transparent, and will also serve to fight misinformation about County law enforcement. To learn more about the County’s crime fighting initiatives and investments, visit SafeHarris.com or download the Safe Harris One Pager here.
Harris County Approves Additional $20 Million to Continue Work to Reduce Court Backlog
As we’ve seen repeatedly, the backlog in our court system has a massive ripple effect on our criminal justice system and county. Harris County has been making the necessary investments across all of our law enforcement agencies to bring down the backlog and we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor with reductions in backlogged cases in both felony and misdemeanor courts.
In early September, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court approved an additional $20 million in ARPA funds to continue the work of reducing this backlog. Funds will support evidence management, such as the work of going through 911 audio tapes and body camera footage, funding to sustain positions across the Clerk, Courts, Public Defender and District Attorney Offices, and additional funding for our Children’s Assessment Center, which investigates child abuse cases. Harris County will keep hacking away at this backlog until we can eliminate it entirely.
Get the Word Out About 9-8-8, the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Hotline
We know we are living in a time where mental health needs have drastically increased and suicides are also on the rise. Identifying people in crisis and providing them support is one way we can help save lives. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo would like to get the word out about 9-8-8, the new nationwide suicide and crisis hotline that launched in July. Those in crisis or dealing with suicidal ideation or other mental health issues anywhere in the U.S. can now call 9-8-8 and speak with a live trained person who can help connect them to resources and help them work through their immediate crisis. Our very own Harris Center is the local administrator responding to those calls for 45 counties including Harris County. The Harris Center has already seen a 38% increase in average call volume since 9-8-8 launched.
Four Local Nonprofits Receive Additional Funding to Fight Food Insecurity in Harris County
Before the pandemic, 800,000 Harris County residents were estimated to struggle to access food, with an additional 1.3 million residents at risk of food insecurity. The pandemic has only intensified these challenges. Last month, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court approved $7.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act Funds to support projects to reduce the number of county residents who are food insecure. This amount is in addition to the $15.8 million investment we made at the start of the pandemic and will help to continue our work to bring quality, affordable foods to key areas in Harris County with high rates of food insecurity, called food deserts. The County will be partnering with the Houston Food Bank, Small Places, The Common Market Texas, and Urban Harvest Inc. to bring programming that includes developing small urban farms and community gardens, distributing fresh, local foods, and providing nutritional programming. Watch this space for more information on these life changing policies.
Update on Monkeypox Virus and Vaccinations in Harris County
As a community we must be vigilant and get ahead of the Monkeypox virus with the best tool we have – vaccinations. And Harris County would like to get as many people who qualify for vaccination vaccinated as quickly as possible. Eligibility for the vaccine now includes anyone – regardless of gender or sexual orientation – who has multiple or anonymous partners, as well as people who are HIV positive or are on HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and people who have had a diagnosis of chlamydia, gonorrhea, or early syphilis within the previous twelve months. To check if you qualify for the vaccine, contact your medical provider or call Harris County Public Health at 832-927-0707. More information is also available at ReadyHarris.org.
Harris County Renews Agreement to Continue American Youthworks’ Environmental Stewardship Program
More young people in Harris County will have the opportunity to build a career, strengthen their community, and improve the environment with American Youthworks’ Environmental Stewardship Program. Precinct Two has renewed its agreement to continue the program, which provides young people ages 17 to 24 with education and employment career training for environmentally sustainable landscaping services. Skills taught include maintenance of undeveloped parkland, identification and removal of non-native species, and the development of natural surface trails. Program participants may be from low-income areas or face a variety of barriers to conventional employment, such as homelessness, disability, or involvement in the criminal justice system. To learn more about the program, please visit American Youthworks.
Harris County Approves Resolution Supporting Federal Respect for Marriage Act
All of our residents have the right to love and marry who they wish, and Harris County has a duty to protect the rights of our LGBTQ+ community. Last month, Harris County approved a resolution supporting the federal Respect for Marriage Act, a piece of legislation that will be crucial in guaranteeing federal protection for same sex couples. The federal bill will provide statutory authority to same-sex and interracial marriages in anticipation of other regressive civil rights rulings under the current Supreme Court. Marriage grants rights that allow you to protect your family, such as accessing your spouse in a medical emergency. Without marriage many would not have the same legal access to carry out their family responsibilities. In the United States of America, we should not have to worry about protecting and fighting for rights already won and well established by the Supreme Court.
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month Harris County!
September 15th to October 15th is #HispanicHeritageMonth! Harris County would not be as beautiful as it is today without its diversity. We are so lucky for the wealth of culture, food, entertainment, businesses, and stories that our Hispanic residents bring to Harris County.
Public Meetings on 2022 Bond Propositions
On November 8, 2022, Harris County voters will have the opportunity to vote on three bond propositions totaling $1.2 billion for public safety facilities, roads, drainage, transportation-related programs, and parks and trails. The County is hosting a series of in-person and virtual meetings for the public to learn more about the bonds and provide input about what should be funded. Information – including online public comment submission – can be found at HarrisCounty2022bond.org.
The upcoming public meetings are:
Oct. 15: 6 p.m. at Felix L. Baldree Community Center, 13828 Corpus Christi
As part of the County Judge’s Office initiative to make local government more transparent and accessible, we invite you to get involved by viewing Commissioners Court meetings. You can check here to see the meeting schedule, and watch the official close captioned livestream here or on the Judge’s homepage here.
Upcoming Flood Control Bond Project Meetings
Harris County never stops preparing for the next big storm. And while the 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program is in full swing, we continue to seek input from community members as we implement projects in watersheds across the County. If you have a comment about a particular project, we invite you to attend the corresponding virtual meeting and be part of the planning process. Learn more about upcoming 2018 Bond Program Community Engagement Meetings here.
Hazardous Waste Collection Appointments
Do you have unwanted household hazardous items? Properly dispose of them by making an appointment with the Household Hazardous Waste Collections facility at 6900 Hahl Road in Houston. Learn what items are accepted and make an appointment here.
About Judge Hidalgo
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is the head of Harris County’s governing body and Director of the Harris County’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Judge Hidalgo, alongside four County Precinct Commissioners, oversees a budget of approximately $5 billion that funds services and institutions for the third-largest county in the nation, home to nearly 5 million people.
For more information about Harris County and the Office of the County Judge, click here.