Movement for a Community Safety Budget in Harris County

Organizers across groups created a coalition and worked since April to create a Community Safety Budget ahead of Harris County Commissioner’s Court budget hearings that happened in late August. These budget hearings allocate residents’ tax dollars across the county, and as the pressure to give more tax dollars to the police increases, organizers got together to work on protecting our community programs and infrastructure from budget cuts.

The very first thing the coalition did was share research to review past budget documents and the proposed budget for the fiscal year 2023. Each member of the coalition adopted a department and reviewed the past and proposed budgets line by line, department by department. After each member did their research, the coalition would meet online to review their findings.

“Looking deeper, I’d say one thing that really shocked all of us, is how much we were finding line items for law enforcement positions in departments that weren’t law enforcement. We saw requests for a law enforcement position in the library, for example, coming out of the library’s budget.

We feel that anytime a department is as used and as loved by residents like the library, the library shouldn’t be forced to spend their already too small budgets funding policing and surveillance of community members using it…the biggest takeaway was how under-funded and under-invested the most importants departments are in our county.” — Gabriela from Texas Jail Project told me. Listen to the full interview here.

After months of input from community organizers and groups, the Community Safety Budget was created. The goal was to reclaim the idea of public safety into something that is life-affirming and meets the needs of the community. Besides the budget, the coalition also weighed in on how the budget process should look like. For example, budget hearings are held during the day at the Commissioner’s Court when most community members are at work. To remedy this, the coalition included requests to have community town halls that lead to a budget hearing that was accessible outside working hours. Also, the budget materials are not language accessible, only have been printed in English. These parts of the budget process itself were included in the coalition’s Community Safety Budget for Harris County.

As far as the money itself, the coalition proposed a set of program recommendations that totaled $15 million dollars to reinvest away from punishment and into:

  • Universal Basic Income Pilot Program
  • Urban Heat Reduction
  • Expansion of the existing Safe Routes Program to further ensure routes between schools, homes, and parks are safe for children

In comparison, the Harris County budget for law enforcement (constables, jails, sheriffs, courts, prosecution) is over a $1 billion. Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey were pushing for another $20 million on top of the already additionally budget $100 million for law enforcement.

“The Community Safety Agenda is a proactive and life-affirming vision for how Harris County can keep its residents safe. The Agenda’s budget proposals bring together advocates from varied spaces — health, housing, and immigration justice to education, criminal-legal policy change, and climate justice — to craft a shared platform that spans these issue areas. The goal is to reshape the narrative regarding what really keeps communities safe while building new bridges to advance shared policy goals.” — This excerpt is from the budget document that community organizers created. You can access the document here.

The Hearings

What should have been one hearing, turned into about seven hearings because of political theater. Organizers in the coalition showed up week after week to advocate for the Community Safety Budget. There was a budget passed, but little change happened between last year’s budget and the new one.

Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey boycotted the commissioners court week after week in support for another $20 million in law enforcement funding, despite there being an additional $100 million in the budget for that group. Without Cagle and Ramsey’s presence, the court could not meet a quorum to pass a vote which locked the county into a “no new revenue rate,” which resulted in drastic cuts in departments across the county. This will show up in our communities as even less flood prevention projects and longer wait times at public hospitals such as Ben Taub. You can read more about their political stunt here, there, and please look it up on Google if you need more context. Because of this political theater, the coalition’s Community Safety Budget received very little news coverage and focus was detracted from the budget.

“It may be easy to confuse this one process as the only reason our departments are under-funded. That it is only because Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey that pollution control or Harris Health doesn’t have what it needs. But that is untrue. The problems with our Harris County budget started far before September. The pollution control was already unable to hire many of the positions they should be able to; for 20 years their budget hasn’t kept up with inflation.

It might be getting a lot of attention right now because of the actions of two men. But a very serious reprioritization of our budget and budget process is really needed.” — Gabriela from Texas Jail Project told me. Listen to the full interview here.

As the coalition was advocating for re-investing money away from law enforcement and into community programs, the constables showed up and packed the court. There were reports that some constables in attendance didn’t know why they were there, they were just told to attend.

“Every commissioner that attended, staunchly supports law enforcement and that is reflected in the budget. So to see them [the constable officers], lie, sneer, and bully was just really surreal. To watch people getting everything they’ve wanted for so long, to keep taking space from people that have gotten pennies.

It’s an important reminder of what we are up against. Law enforcement is organized. Law enforcement controls much of the rhetoric and narrative around safety. When they show up, they are not afraid to show up armed, uniformed, and with the full weight of their power and brutality to intimidate the process.

It’s a strong reminder that we need to inject our own movement with care as an antidote to that level of bullying.” — Gabriela from Texas Jail Project told me. Listen to the full interview here.

Where are we now?

Most notable cuts:

  • Harris Health will operate $45 million dollars in the red, compounding over time, and won’t be able to expand services
  • About $23 million less for the Flood Control District
  • Pollution Control will lose $100,000, but they were already severely under funded
  • About $1.5 million less for the Harris County Library System

Extra note: No deadline on advocating for protecting programs and services communities require as cuts make the rounds due to the no new tax revenue rate.

Most notable wins:

  • The organizing work that happened within our community was diverse across individuals, organizations, and groups to advocate for safety and not just policing
  • Received a commitment to translate budget materials to multiple languages and ensure next year’s budget is language accessible
  • Received a commitment to audit where language access exists and doesn’t
  • Received a commitment to get a transparency update on the spending for the safe streets initiative, which was a $50 million investment in crime prevention through design by investing in infrastructure and not just policing

“I can think of very few other stronger examples of how to show love for your community than interacting with your local budget. It’s the strongest statement of a community’s morals, values, and for folks to give even a moment of their time that they use, their neighbors use…it is an act of love for this county. Not an act of hatred for the other side.

It is a deeply rooted belief that we can be better, and we have the power to change it.” Gabriela from Texas Jail Project told me. Listen to the full interview here.

Endorsing Organizations

For every issue in which there is struggle, there are already people and communities fighting back. You’re not alone.

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