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October 25, 2021
Candice Johnson

County Comparison of Spending on Social Services, Public Safety, and County Services

One of the County’s primary functions is the creation of the county budget. The budget provides a framework for funding public services and programs and is an expression of the County’s values and priorities.

Spending on Public Safety, Social Services, and County Services

County budgets support a broad range of public programs and services. For this memo, the Analyst’s Office compared public spending in Harris County to nine counties and across three broadly defined areas: Public Safety, Social Services, and County Services from FY2010 to FY2018, defined as follows:

Public Safety includes spending on corrections law enforcement like the Sheriff’s Office and constables, the judicial system, and emergency services like emergency medical services and fire rescue.

Social Services includes spending on health and non-health related services, such as housing programs, parks maintenance, and public health services.

County Services includes spending on administrative expenses, such as the budgets for the County Judge and the Precinct Commissioners’ offices, as well as services related to public infrastructure, like roads, bridges, bike lanes, and more.

Spending on Public Safety

During the nine-year period analyzed, six of the ten counties’ annual spending related to Public Safety was higher than spending on County Services or Social Services.

Cook County spent the greatest percentage of their budget on Public Safety, reflecting 66% of their annual spending. Miami-Dade County spent the least on Public Safety as a percentage of their budget (29%). During this period, Harris County, Cook County, and Miami-Dade County spent the majority of their Public Safety spending in their respective Sheriff and Police departments.

Harris County spent more on Public Safety (44%) than in any other category—three times the amount spent on Social Services (13%).

Spending on Social Services

For nine of the ten counties reviewed, spending on Social Services accounted for the smallest share of their budgets, ranging from 1% (Cook County) to 17% of spending (Miami-Dade County).

Harris County follows the trend, spending only 13% of its budget on Social Services. King County is the only exception, spending more on Social Services (33%) than on County Services (27%).

During the nine-year period analyzed, both Harris County and King County spent the majority of their Social Services spending on public health-related expenses, such as costs associated with preventing disease and promoting behavioral health.

Spending on County Services

During the nine-year period analyzed, four of the ten counties’ annual spending related to County Services was higher than spending on Public Safety or Social Services.

Bexar County spent the greatest percentage of their budget on County Services, reflecting 60% of their annual spending, whereas King County spent the least, 27% of their annual spending on County Services.

During this period, Harris County spent 33% of their annual spending on County Services. Excluding debt service payments, spending by the Harris County Judge and Commissioners’ offices account for the majority of Harris County’s annual spending on County Services.

The Comparison: Per Capita Spending

The Analyst’s Office used per capita spending to compare spending between counties. This adjustment is made because some counties have very large budgets, but like Harris County, also have a lot of residents to serve—and other counties may have much smaller budgets as well as fewer residents to serve.

Considering all spending categories together (Public Safety, Social Services, and County Services), the three counties with the highest average per capita spending between FY2010 and FY2018 were non-Texas counties (Denver, $2,427 per capita; Miami-Dade, $1,926 per capita; King, $1,242 per capita). Of the counties in Texas, Travis County had the highest average per capita spending, at $741 per capita annually. The three counties with the lowest average spending between FY2010 and FY2018 were Dallas ($221 per capita), Tarrant ($265 per capita), and Cook ($324 per capita).

The chart below reflects the nine-year aggregate per capita spending for each county and demonstrates the local proportions of expenditures within a county allocated by category—Social Services, Public Safety, and County Services.

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