Harris County Lifts Hiring Freeze

Harris County Commissioners lift the hiring freeze that has kept department heads from filling positions. Sheriff Adrian Garcia pleaded with commissioners to lift the freeze to allow him to hire more staff to cut down on overtime. Pat Hernandez has more.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia says he’s been trying to maintain adequate operations without extra personnel to provide protection to citizens and to staff jail operations. He went before Commissioner’s Court to plead his case.

“By hiring staff to get us off of overtime and put us on straight time, that can save 5-million dollars of the taxpayers’ money and I can do that today.”

Commissioner Steve Radack says they’re looking at privatizing the county jail, the largest lockup in Texas, as budget cuts take affect and county workers are laid off.

“I think we need to put proposals out to privatize it, to see what the market will yield. I think that there could be massive savings, millions and millions of dollars, if we are able to privatize the entire operation or a lot of it, and I think it’s something we brought up in September. Dr. Raycraft did a little bit of work on it, and now is a good time to get the county attorney and the purchasing agent to put something out on the street.”

He says comments he made years ago that privatizing the county jail would not be possible — were a bit short sighted.

“Because right now there are a lot more companies in that business, companies that have gone into operating these jails. One thing we learned, we know, is it’s cheaper for us to use jail cells in other counties, than to build more jail cells here. There are certain ones that need to be housed here, certain prisoners but, we might as well, take a look at the full market.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the Harris County jail has long been a charged item because its been overcrowded and under the supervision of the federal government.

“Our jail handles not just prisoners in the normal sense. I mean we have a large psychiatric unit there. More psychotropic drugs are handed out in the Harris County jail than in any hospital facility in the state. It’s a huge expense item for the county. I think everybody’s willing to look at all kinds of options.”

Sheriff Garcia says he’s managed to cut the rate of growth and spending in the department, which had averaged at least 17-percent.

“In my first year in office, we brought that down to 4 percent. In my second year, we brought that down to a  negative 4 percent. And so, we are being tight with the people’s money. We are instituting business like principles to manage this incredible organization.”

The lifting of the hiring freeze should help the sheriff with his staffing shortage, and Commissioners will study the results of privatizing the county jail.