Bexar County staff has recommended eliminating a number of positions in order to balance its fiscal year 2017 budget. One of those positions is the Probate Court 1 associate judge.
Up until July, the post was originally held by Oscar Kazen, who – as reported by the San Antonio Express-News – was fired by Probate Court 1 Judge Kelly Cross, despite his highly praised work as a strong proponent for mental health assistance. Kazen is regarded as turning the County’s mental health program into a leading model across the nation.
Cross’ decision to let Kazen go confused many and angered some, especially since she has yet to publicly disclose the reason for Kazen’s dismissal.
During a public hearing on the fiscal year 2017 budget Thursday, she told commissioners that her lack of response was per the advice of the County Attorney Ed Schweninger, who said he gives the same suggestion to all offices who are contemplating employment changes.
“My advice would remain the same (today). To my boss, Nico LaHood, or any other elected official making an employment decision…we don’t discuss why we make personnel decisions publicly. That is not appropriate and those are private decisions by employers,” Schweninger told Cross, who was standing at the podium addressing the commissioners.
Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) has been vocal about his disapproval of the entire situation, calling Cross’ decision a political move. After firing Kazen, a Democrat, Cross, a Republican, appointed Art Rossi, also a Republican, to take Kazen’s spot on the associate probate court bench. Elizondo and others have suspicions that, in doing so, Cross has elevated Rossi’s career enough to make it possible for him to assume the role of Probate Court 2 judge should Judge Tom Rickhoff retire before his term ends in 2018.
At a July Commissioner’s Court meeting, Elizondo said commissioners could be political, too, and use their power to defund the position entirely.
County staff sees creating an exclusive mental health associate judge position, under the Texas Health and Safety Code, as the most ideal option to provide more hands-on court intervention for the high number of “super-utilizers” in the system, or those who are living in poverty and at the highest risk of using jails, hospitals, and emergency rooms. Creat
“I would caution you to be very careful taking over business on these two courts … This is life and death work. If you take over mental health, I’d almost like to see you do it,” Rickhoff told commissioners Thursday. “Why you would want to get into this is beyond me and it’s actually a breach of trust between us that you would even think of doing it without speaking to us.”
“A lot has been said without talking to me,” Cross said. “If you’d like to understand, if my attorney releases me to do so, I will explain myself, but I was told I cannot speak.”
Cross questioned the legality of the whole plan.
“If you proceed with your plan, you need to investigate that law a little bit further,” she said. “I am the referring court. I will not supervise your appointee nor will I appoint and refer cases to an illegal appointee.”
The associate judge position was created in 2007 after Probate Court 2 Judge Tom Rickhoff decided – just one week after he claimed victory in the 2006 general-election – that he no longer wanted to oversee mental health cases. As reported by the San Antonio Express-News, in a letter written to then presiding Probate Court 1 judge, Polly Jackson Spencer, Rickhoff stated he wanted off the mental health docket “to reduce angst and conflict in my life.”
“I called him and talked to him at that time and got him to stay for a few months until we decided what to do,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said, but in the end “that was his job and he chose not to do it.”
That shifted the burden of all of those cases in Probate Court 2 to Spencer, who requested the appointment of an associate judge – Kazen – to assist her with those cases as well as preside over Probate matters.
“When the two here (Cross and Rickhoff) decided to fire (Kazen), again without telling us anything or anyone else anything, and hire someone else working for (Cross), without any process without any consultation, obviously it caused some concern here,” Wolff said.
Under the Texas Health and Safety code, commissioners can create a mental health court that deals exclusively with those cases and not Probate matters, a goal the County has had for years now. They could’ve have done so back in 2006, Wolff said, but didn’t “out of respect for Judge Spencer,” who was a highly respected and effective veteran judge.
Now would be the County’s chance and if they vote to do so, Wolff would have to appoint the judge for the mental health post. He said he would “not be arbitrary in who I’d want to appoint” and would confer with local mental health professionals as well as Cross for that appointment.
“I don’t know what we’ll do yet, so we’ll wait for the 13th,” he said.
Along with the probate judge position and a part-time judge position, County staff recommended eliminating 17 deputy constables and nine clerks, which would save $1.3 million. Cutting back on the clerks would save the County $322,081 and reducing the constables would save $940,375.
The constables’ workload steadily decreased from 2013-2015, but increased by 19% this fiscal year, said Lauron Fischer, a budget analyst hired by the County. That increase can be attributed almost entirely to a 165% increase in workload at Precinct 1 – where no constables would be cut – due to criminal warrants received. The high efficiency of Precinct 1 allows for extra cuts in other precincts. County staff actually recommended cutting only half of the suggested reductions.
Precinct 3 Constable Mark Vojvodich said the County’s data is skewed by the fact that, for whatever reason, the majority of cases have been taken to Precinct 1 for processing.
“That number is flawed, and it should be normalized or should not be used,” he told commissioners.
Attorney Mac Bozza, who spoke on behalf of the Precinct 4 deputies, said the funding cuts would put the deputy offices “beneath those minimal levels of functionality” and is “a dangerous legal position that appears to us incorrect.
“They cannot cease to serve certain functions peace officers are required to serve,” he said. “If they do so they are exposed to criminal and civil liability.”
Precinct 4 Chief Deputy John “J.T.” Hydrick questioned the data County staff used when making their decision, citing the amount of revenue the constables have brought into the County over the past three years.
His data shows that in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, warrants issued by Precinct 4 deputies brought in $1,439,000, traffic tickets brought in $484,980, and it only cost the County $278,244 to operate the constable services, including building fees, police salaries, vehicles, benefits, and other things. The County is actually short of civil officers, he added, and even though the budget department recommended adding officers over the last two years, it never happened.
“I do think it merits the staff looking deeper into the information that Chief Hydrick provided,” said Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4).
Wolff asked County Manager David Smith to look into it. Commissioners will vote on the entire budget on Sept. 13.
CORRECTION: A previous article stated that Constable Mark Vojvodich was in Precinct 4 when he is in Precinct 3, and had a misspelling of Lauron Fischer’s name.
Top image: The Lady Justice fountain outside the Bexar County Courthouse. Photo by Scott Ball.