HOUSTON - Widely perceived in Greater Houston as the "essential grassroots" of neighborhood safety, Harris County Constables this week sustained a substantial financial setback at the direction of Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Democratic Majority on Commissioners Court.
"We cannot afford to have these savings accounts. We can't. We have to spend the money tackling the rise in violent crime, " said Hidalgo.
At the tail-end of a marathon meeting of the court which pushed past 2 am, Hidalgo and allies stripped Constables of an estimated $20 million dollars in so-called "rollover funds" - essentially each Precinct yearly "savings account."
Constables claimed their "Rainy Day" surplus is critical to plugging unanticipated holes in staffing and other public safety expense.
"The reality to me is I had $52 million last year at this time and at this time this year, I have $44 million dollars," said Ted Heap, Harris County Constable Precinct 5.
"I hope we can resolve this issue because I don't want to lay any people off," added Sherman Eagleton, Harris Count Constable Precinct 3.
While Hidalgo and allies pledged that the millions clawed back from Constables will be re-directed to different avenues of crime-fighting, others in the community and state government viewed the budget maneuver as "defunding" local police.
"Oh it's clearly defunding the Police and not only that, when you see that the Legislature outlawed that and they are sneaking it in before the time it takes place, how outrageous can you get?" said Larry Lipton, a longtime neighborhood activist.
"When you've got constables of both parties coming down and saying please don't do this, this isn't a partisan issue, this is an 'everybody is afraid issue' and crime is on the increase," said State Senator Paul Bettencourt of Houston. "Don't do this. You are making a mistake with your citizen's safety."
While Hidalgo contends eliminating the constable's "rollover" accounts is a "best practice" that will pay off for citizens in the future, FOX 26 has confirmed that Harris County Constable Mark Herman had more than $5 million in contingency funds earmarked for public safety reclaimed by Commissioners Court.