Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff would not support a budget that cuts 23 positions in the constable and Justice of the Peace offices, according to a letter Wolff sent to Bexar County Manager David Smith on Tuesday.
Wolff credited Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) for identifying the funding, more than $1.3 million, to keep the positions.
“I don’t know if I want to give my secrets away,” Elizondo quipped Wednesday when asked where he found the money. “That’s why they call me the budget guru.”
Joking aside, he told the Rivard Report that he was able to work with County Auditor Susan Yeatts and budget staff to find that Yeatts’ “rightfully conservative” estimates from tax collection rates could be revised upward.
“It came from several sources. It’s just a matter of scratching around,” Elizondo said. “But we didn’t take from one source to do the other. … We made sure that everything was intact.”
Despite evidence of decreased workloads in each County precinct for the work the constables perform, Wolff told Smith to that the proposed cuts have “created discord between the constables and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. This conflict is ultimately harmful to the justice system.”
Preserving the jobs of the 15 constables and eight clerks would have a $1,315,988 impact on the proposed $1.7 billion County budget for fiscal year 2018-2019. Several constables attended the Commissioners Court meeting last week to protest the cuts.
A total of 15 constable positions were cut in last year’s budget, Wolff told the Rivard Report, so “coming back again to cut more just seems too much.”
The budget proposal includes adding 16 more deputies for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, he said, so that “caused some strong feeling among [constables].”
The workload, or number of cases or papers served, that each office has each year has been trending down since 2012, according to County officials, and so they have established a system that estimates how many positions are needed per 3,378 cases for clerks and 2,315 “papers” – such as citations, notices, subpoenas, or writs – for constables.
Using that system, the cuts should be much deeper, to the tune of 18 clerks and 32 constables, Seth McCabe, director of the County’s Management and Finance Department, told Commissioners last week. But the county recommended cutting less than half than suggested by the equation.
In fiscal year 2012-2013, Bexar County constables, who carry out civil and criminal court duties and deliver warrants, had more than 110,000 (110,131) cases. In 2017-2018, they are estimated to have less than 90,000 (87,265). However, there was an influx of cases during the 2014-2015 period and the following year, when they saw more than 117,000 cases.
The clerks that assist Justices of the Peace handled more than 240,000 (241,998) cases, including more than 20,000 truancy cases. They stopped handling truancy cases in 2014, and this year the caseload is expected to be less than 150,000 (141,719).
But constables testified last week that their true workload can’t be measured with one simple metric.
“They do a lot of patrolling and that’s important,” Wolff said, adding that he doesn’t think it’s necessary to cut their offices further.
Elizondo said he wants to form a task force that includes all County stakeholders – especially constables – to explore the workload issue and recommend a path forward for the constables and clerks. He’d like that work done by the time the next budget comes before the court in 2019.
“They say we don’t understand their workload,” he said, “so let’s understand it.”
Because constables have such broad-reaching authority, but mainly stick to bailiff and paper duties, he said, their functions should not overlap those of the Sheriff’s Office or the San Antonio Police Department.
“People don’t want to fund duplication” of services, Elizondo said.
This change to the budget may face opposition from the sole Republican on the court, Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), who is the county judge’s son. He could not be reached for comment by deadline.