Tarrant County’s justice system took center stage as commissioners discussed and approved its 2023 budget. 

The Tarrant County Commissioners Court passed its fiscal year 2023 budget Sept. 13. The approval sets the stage to possibly defund two associate judge positions in Tarrant County’s juvenile court. The commissioners also voted to reduce the county tax rate by a half cent. 

The county will spend over $904 million in fiscal year 2023, setting its tax rate at $0.224 for every $100 of valuation. Residents who own property with Fort Worth’s average residential taxable value of $199,169 would pay about $446 in taxes to the county, not including possible exemptions. 

The general fund will receive $815.4 million in funding, roads and bridges will receive $44 million and the debt service fund will receive $44.7 million. 

The county will still collect about $50 million more from property taxes in 2023 compared with last year. Tarrant County’s tax rate is just one part of the resident’s tax bill, the biggest portion of which goes to school districts. 

Tarrant County must collect more money because the government is taking on the costs for prisoners who belong in state prisons, said County Judge Glen Whitley. The county is spending about $27.6 million per year — without state support — to imprison people in county or private jails. 

“Yes, our budget increased, yes we’re collecting more tax dollars than we did last year, but if the state would fulfill its obligation or at least agree to reimburse us for its obligations, we would be able to lower that property tax much, much more,” Whitley said.  

Commissioners previously discussed the potential to defund two associate judge positions in the 323rd District Juvenile Court currently held by Cynthia Terry and Andy Porter. Both of the associate judges in the 323rd District Court are seeking election to another Tarrant County court as judge. 

The backlash against the juvenile court comes after a report conducted by Carey Cockerell, former director of Tarrant County Juvenile Services, revealed significant backlogs within the juvenile courts. The report found the juvenile courts had a backlog of 600 cases and Terry and Porter held no hearings from mid-February to mid-March in 2022.

The juvenile court’s judge, Alex Kim, has also been embroiled in controversy after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the court brought in $9,000 from ads shown on a YouTube channel where Kim livestreamed the court proceedings of minors; the commissioners court voted to return the money. 

Whitley has asked the juvenile board to recommend a course of action to make the court more efficient, but has not yet received that recommendation.  

The county will fund the two associate judge positions — which costs $248,547 annually — in the juvenile court through Dec. 31, 2022. After that date, if the commissioners court does not receive a proposed course of action from the juvenile board, the positions will be defunded.

If commissioners receive a sufficient recommendation, they plan to pull money from the county’s undesignated funds to pay for the associate judge positions. 

The commissioners court also voted to approve the salaries for elected officials in fiscal year 2023. Almost every elected official will receive about a 6% raise in 2023, while the Criminal District Attorney will receive a 3% raise. County and probate court judges salaries will remain the same. 

Commissioner Devan Allen, who represents southeast Tarrant County, voted against the raises because she believes commissioners should not give themselves raises. 

“We have a county full of independently elected officials, 60 plus for the county, and there’s no consistency in how we as a court hold those elected officials accountable,” Allen, who will leave office at the end of the year, said. “So, by and large, I am opposed to those salary raises.”

Former state representative Lon Burnam criticized the county’s sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office. He called on the commissioners court to reduce the sheriff’s salary by 20% in response to the time the sheriff spends outside of Tarrant County speaking at political events.

Burnam also floated the idea of suing the state of Texas for refusing to accept 755 prisoners destined for state prisons and failing to reimburse Tarrant County for housing them. 

Commissioner Roy Brooks, who represents south west Fort Worth, agreed, stating that the county should consider suing the state. 

Public commenters also mourned the death of ubiquitous government critic Thomas Torlincasi, who died Sept. 7 at the age of 62. Ahead of opening up the public hearing to discuss the 2023 budget, Whitley called for a moment of silence in Torlincasi’s memory. 

“I’m here today because Thomas can’t be here today,” Burnam said before offering his comments. 

The fiscal year 2023 budget will be Whitley’s last as he prepares to exit the position he has held for 26 years.  

“It’s kind of bittersweet, I enjoyed budgets … I just treated this one as I would any other,” Whitley said. “But we take very seriously that those are taxpayer dollars.”

To read more about Tarrant County’s budget:

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel Behrndt

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for fortworthreport.org. She can be reached at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org