The Travis County Commissioners Court has voted 4-1 to direct the county's budget office to "find a way" to appropriate $1.76 million to the Travis County District Attorney's Public Integrity Unit.
DA Rosemary Lehmberg will also contribute $734,422 from an account containing criminals' forfeited property. The stopgap funding totals $2.5 million, which is a 33.28 percent reduction compared to the $3.74 million in state funding that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed in June.
Lehmberg told commissioners at their Aug. 6 meeting that the unit will lose employees, focus solely on Travis County cases, and stop prosecuting other counties' insurance fraud and motor fuels tax fraud cases.
"We have analyzed the statewide cases and determined 54 of those can be returned to the Insurance Department, or the comptroller, or another county," Lehmberg said at the meeting.
Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Dougherty voted against the proposal. He said the decision was "disconcerting" because the cases should be taken care of, but he thinks if the county funds the unit, the state will not restore funding.
"This is on the backs of the taxpayers. This is not healthy for this community," he said, adding that the county doesn't yet know the source of the funding and it may have to cut other budget items.
But Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd said that as elected officials, commissioners and the DA have a "moral responsibility" to prosecute crimes.
"It's irresponsible for us to say we are not going to do something when we really should do it," Todd said. He also apologized directly to the unit's employees — many attended the meeting — about the "uncertainties" the funding crisis created for them.
Lehmberg told commissioners that the vetoed state funding would have paid for 35 full-time and one part-time employee — or 35.5 full-time equivalents (FTEs). But right now, the unit only has 30.5 FTEs because there were vacant positions and some employees announced plans to leave. She said to handle Travis County cases, the unit must keep 22 or 23 FTEs.
With seven jobs on the line, Lehmberg decided to use her general fund to pay for three workers. She also asked for the commissioners' permission to use the general fund for one more worker whose salary exceeds the approved upper pay range.
Lehmberg says in an interview that 10 assistant DAs in the unit will remain employed.
But three other employees are "in jeopardy" of losing their jobs, she said. Lehmberg wants to use an unexpended balance in her current budget to extend their positions for 90 days so they have more time for job searches. She also said she's working with the county's human resources office to see if they can get other county jobs.
For the remaining employees, the county's appropriation would cover 15 FTEs. The amount from the DA's forfeited property account covers 8.5 FTEs. However, that appropriation wipes out 81.6 percent from the $900,000 account, which means Lehmberg won't be able to fund those jobs next year. She hopes eventually to pay those employees with her general fund.
Lehmberg told commissioners that currently 70 percent of the unit's 425 cases involve offenses that occurred in Travis County. The unit determined that 132 of its cases occurred in other counties. It plans immediately to drop 54 cases, but Lehmberg said the unit must continue 78 statewide cases because they're in active litigation.
Lehmberg noted that Todd has asked about invoicing other counties for that work.
"We could start some type of time sheet as we go on these cases that are statewide, not Travis County, and develop some type of invoicing system that we send back," said Lehmberg. "I can't promise you it can get paid."