On May 22, John Best, the District Attorney for the 119th Judicial District that includes the counties of Tom Green, Runnels and Concho, sent a budget request letter to the Runnels County Commissioners Court and Judge Barry Hilliard and also sent the letter to Judge David Dillard in Concho County. The reason for the letter was to request additional funds for his office from Concho and Runnels counties, respectively.
“The current level of funding provided by Runnels County is insufficient to support the felony caseload,” Best said. “Runnels County has seen a dramatic increase in the number of drug cases, particularly THC cases. I’m elected to represent the people of Concho, Runnels and Tom Green counties. My job is to seek justice and I need the resources to be able to carry out those responsibilities.”
In his letter, Best wrote, “Currently, although Runnels County accounts for approximately 6.4 percent of the felony cases prosecuted in the district, the county contributes only 1.2 percent, or $22,634.35, a year to fund the DA’s operations.”
Best requested that Runnels County increase its contribution to the DA’s office to $120,935.23 to fund Runnels County’s share for felony prosecutions within the district. In 2017, Tom Green County approved a budget of $1,889,612.98 for the District Attorney’s Office.
The DA’s office currently employs 28 full-time staff which includes 11 prosecutors, two investigators, and 15 support staff to manage the roughly 1,500 felony cases it prosecutes each year.
“Many resources in our office are used to successfully engage in criminal prosecution in Runnels County including the use of prosecutors, legal assistants, victims’ services staff and investigators,” Best said. “Ideally, Runnels County would provide sufficient funding for a prosecutor and legal assistant to focus on the Runnels County felony caseload.”
Best wrote in his letter to the Runnels County Commissioners Court that in 2017, according to the Office of Court Administration, the DA’s office resolved 96 felony cases in Runnels County. During the same period, 36 felony cases were resolved in Concho County, and 1,489 cases were resolved in Tom Green County.
As prosecutorial costs increase, however, there is a need for each county to cover its proportionate costs.
“I am requesting this increase only after careful consideration of the realistic costs of providing the services necessary to fund the operations of this office for the citizens of Runnels County,” Best wrote in his letter.
He pointed out that he realizes the amount requested is significant, but says the additional resources are critical to his ability to prosecute felony cases in Runnels County.
In May of this year there were 66 felony cases on the Runnels County docket and on May 4, the Runnels County Grand Jury returned an additional 24 indictments.
“For years the cost-effectiveness of combining resources for a central prosecutorial office has made sense for the taxpayers of Runnels, Concho and Tom Green counties and it still does make sense,” Best said.
One of Best’s concerns is time.
“As our docket continues to grow and without additional funding, the longer it will take to get the cases to trial,” Best said. “I am requesting that Runnels County fund the 119th District Attorney’s Office at a level commensurate with it proportionate share of the felony cases prosecuted by our office.”
Hilliard provided his and the commissioners’ court’s perspective
“Tom Green County is the administrative offices of the 119th district,” Hilliard said. “They set the salaries.”
Hilliard pointed out that Runnels County gave Best’s office an additional $5,000 the first year he came to them. While Hilliard says that the count commissioner’s court will not pay out any “bonuses,” as he feels that is what is being asked for, he says that Runnels County will do their part, “If it is determined that Runnels County is not paying their fare share of the costs, we will negotiate that with Tom Green County and not the DA’s office.”
Hilliard is in the process of discussing the matter with Judge Floyd in Tom Green County.
“We don’t disagree that we may need to commit more money, we just feel that negotiating directly with the DA himself isn’t the way to do it.” Hilliard said. “We discussed this with Concho County and they feel the same way, that we should deal with Tom Green County ourselves and not the District Attorney.”
Hilliard also said that Runnels County has reached out to other counties in a similar situation.
“We talked to other multi-district county judicial districts,” Hilliard said. “They all perform inter-locals with the administrating county.”
Tom Green County Judge Stephen C. Floyd agrees that Best has a significant workload, “John Best has a valid claim,” Floyd said. “Prosecuting cases takes a great deal of time and manpower. The prosecution of criminals gets delayed when the docket gets backed up and thus justice is delayed.”
Floyd mentioned another responsibility of Best’s office.
“They also deal with civil cases,” Floyd said. “When you add civil cases to the criminal caseload it’s a considerable responsibility. John Best’s office is incredibly busy.”
When it comes to the funding Floyd seemingly agrees with Hilliard.
“It’s better if one county is chosen as the administrator of funds for the DA’s office,” Hilliard said.
Floyd said that getting all of the particulars worked out to provide the DA’s office with more funding is achievable, “We are ready, willing and able to work with the District Attorney’s office and the respective County Commissioners’ Courts to get something done. Everyone involved sees the situation and knows that we need to work something out. We just need to all sit down and make some decisions.”