He wanted $1.3 million to operate two helicopters. He got $800,000.
Tuesday’s budget hearing at the County Commission meeting didn’t go the way Houston had hoped, and he wasn’t shy about saying so.
Constituents ought to realize, he said afterward, that “I am not effectively able to protect them the way I should.”
That drew a sharp response from Commission Chairman Art De La Cruz: “Other sheriffs clearly have been able to do so.”
The harsh words from both sides came after the commission voted along party lines — Democrats in the majority — to give Houston, a Republican, only some of what he wanted. But commissioners left open the possibility of authorizing more money for deputies or helicopters if Houston provides the justification for it to their satisfaction.
Less controversial, meanwhile, was the passage of new restrictions on fireworks in the unincorporated area. The commission voted unanimously to ban fireworks in the East Mountains, bosque and other wildlands ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.
Houston said the denial of his full budget request was clearly political. He contrasted his treatment with the approvals for other departments.
“What I think they want is to create a situation where the sheriff is no more than a token figure in Bernalillo County,” Houston said.
De La Cruz, when told of Houston’s comments, said they were unfortunate and disappointing. The commission, he said, approved five extra deputies for Houston last month and needs more information before supporting more.
“The notion that it’s political is totally incorrect,” De La Cruz said.
The remaining 15 deputies will be considered a year from now. Commissioners Maggie Hart Stebbins and Michelle Lujan Grisham, both Democrats, joined De La Cruz in voting to postpone the request until the next budget cycle.
Houston had sought 10 deputies for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and 10 more the following year. The commission granted him five for the upcoming fiscal year and will consider the remaining 15 next year.
Commissioners Wayne Johnson and Michael Wiener, both Republicans, sided with the sheriff in support of his full request.
The debate over helicopter funding also fell along party lines. Houston said $1.3 million is needed to operate the Huey and A-Star helicopters that are part of his department.
Previous sheriffs had used a federal narcotics fund — money seized in anti-drug operations — to help support the helicopters, officials said. But Houston said he had questions about the legality of using the money and that, even if it is legal, the money ought to go toward drug education efforts, not basic operations.
Johnson said it would raise civil-rights questions if the sheriff is forced to rely on money seized in drug operations to fund his department.
“I can tell you I’m not in favor of having a $3.5 million paperweight on the West Side,” Johnson said of the air unit. “If we’re going to have it, we should fund it.”
Houston said he’d operate the helicopters as long as he can on the money provided, but he won’t tap the narcotics fund for it.
County attorneys said they believe the federal narcotics fund can be used for the helicopters.
Under the commission’s action, the sheriff will get $800,000 and the chance for the extra $500,000, contingent on the sheriff exploring cost-sharing opportunities with the city or other governments. Several commissioners said that more than 60 percent of the helicopters’ work is done to help Albuquerque police.
Houston noted that city residents pay taxes to the county, so they deserve support from the county-funded helicopters.
Stebbins took issue with the idea that Houston was singled out. She said she demanded answers and detailed information from other departments, too.
Stebbins also noted that providing $800,000 from the general fund was an increase over what the air unit had received in the past from that source.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that we pursue” cost sharing with the city, she said.