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Data reporting implicated in loss of DA’s grant funds

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    Courtesy photo - Employees of the Grimes County District Attorney’s office and former DA now County Court of Law Judge Tuck McLain, appeared at Commissioners Court in support of DA Andria Bender while she discusses the impact of the loss of her $159,500 VOCA grant. Courtesy Photo

During a Regular Meeting of the Grimes County Commissioners Court, Wednesday, Oct. 21, commissioners approved a motion to fund $159,500 for salaries, overtime, travel, and related services for two positions in the Grimes County District Attorney’s office. The action came about after District Attorney Andria Bender learned Oct. 14 that her department was no longer eligible for the $159,500 Victim Services Community Action Project grant (VOCA) which funds the positions of Investigator John Wren and Crime Victims Liaison, Gilberta Diaz.

The reason given for loss of funding was that the Texas Department of Public Safety had not received the county’s 2019 and 2020 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics, a responsibility of the Grimes County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO).

In crafting his motion, County Judge Joe Fauth said, “I want to leave it on the table that if the funding comes in from the grant by chance, we can still fund those positions. If the funding does not come, then we fund out of Fund Balance, or other options that we may have.”

Valuable positions

While the departments involved began immediately investigating the claim and working toward a resolution, Bender requested to be placed on the agenda to address the commissioners.

Providing an overview of the duties performed by Wren and Diaz and the services they render to crime victims, she said, “I think it’s important that the commissioners know what they do, and the taxpayers know the value they’re getting for these positions.”

According to Bender since September 2020, her department has serviced 339 new victims and averages 43 new victims every quarter, a number she anticipates will increase due to additional crime in Navasota.

Bender said, “Over a five year period 860 new victims have been helped by these two employees along with our Victims Assistance Coordinator, Brenda Williams.”

Bender proposed that due to three fully functioning courtrooms looming on the horizon upon completion of the Justice Center that the two positions be added as county employees and use future VOCA grants to fund the services of a third investigator.

Bender closed saying, “I do not feel that my employees should pay, and we should not lose funding for employees who do good, vital public service work because of a mistake in another office. The news of losing the grant and the process of waiting for an official vote of approval from the Court to fund these positions was very stressful for our employees and our office.”

Checks and balances?

Not present in court was Sheriff Don Sowell who was out of state with family after the recent death of his parents.

Speaking on behalf of the GCSO about those responsible for UCR reporting, Chief Deputy Todd Greene said, “The particular staff that took over after Lt. Cook left said the reports were mailed in… so there is some issue there, as far as we’re mailing in the reports.”

He added that internal checks and balances are now in place for oversight of timely reporting.

According to Greene, notice was received in Decem ber that the UCR program was being closed, and that the transition to the FBI’s NIBRS (National Incident-Based Reporting System) electronic reporting system did impact reporting of 2020 data. Greene added there were software issues which have since been corrected, and that the reopening of UCR in an online format extending reporting to 2021 allowed them to enter 2019 and 2020 statistics.

Greene said, “The only notification we received from UCR was back in June, which they stated was about 2020. There was never any mention of 2019. We were under the assumption it was taken care of. So, that’s the issues we’re dealing with, with DPS.”

Fauth expressed his frustration with the lack of notification to his office, or that of the auditor, GCSO or DA, related to this particular grant when he receives repeated notifications regarding other grants.

He said, “I’m not defending anybody, but when we’ve had a deadline coming up, if I had one email or phone call, I had 15 emails or phone calls. I never heard anything from anybody…I’m going to suggest somewhere in the system there is a disconnect.”

Regarding this particular grant, Fauth said, “The Sheriff’s office is caught up on their 2020 reporting to-date. As of Monday morning (Oct. 19), 2019 was taken care of last week.”

According to Fauth, Sowell is “running his traps” to see what he can do from his end, and said, “I’ve been at this 22 years and we’ve never missed a deadline like this before.”

Fake news

The issue of funding the two positions with taxpayer dollars instead of grant money attracted the attention of other media outlets and social media. Those outlets reported grants countywide could be compromised; however, both Navasota Police Chief Shawn Myatt and Todd Mission City Manager Neal Wendele both self-report their UCR data and told The Examiner they are not impacted by this situation.

Responding to social media posts that Grimes County is defunding their police, Fauth said, “That’s so far from the truth and so far-fetched that I will classify that as fake news.”

Commissioner Phillip Cox said, “This is exactly why, through good stewardship, we have a Fund Balance. This was an unexpected occurrence, unfortunate as it might be. It sounds like there are processes in place, so we don’t have it again.”

The Examiner spoke with Sowell upon his return to Grimes County late Friday, and he said, “I’ll be hitting the ground Monday morning early with Todd and others, and I’ll be in Austin throughout the week to find out where I can go to get some help. I’m prepared to do whatever to get factual data.”

Commissions Court meetings may be viewed in their entirety at www.grimescounty