Tarrant has been spending like ‘drunken sailors,’ new judge says in scrutinizing spending

Tim O’Hare addresses the crowd after being sworn in as the Tarrant County judge on the steps of the Courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. (Bob Booth/Special to the Star-Telegram)

Early in his term new Tarrant County judge Tim O’Hare has made it clear he’s going to question spending.

On the table at Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting were two agenda items that would fund studies to determine needs for updating 20-year-old technology used to livestream public meetings. The two studies — one that would cover needs in the central jury room and another for the Commissioners Court — total nearly $230,000.

O’Hare made his stance clear. The money, he believes, could be spend more efficiently and, to him, the county hasn’t been a good steward of taxpayer dollars in recent years.

“We’ve been spending money in Tarrant County like drunken sailors,” O’Hare told reporters following the meeting.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners debated with county employees about the studies’ cost and whether it would be more beneficial to conduct the studies in house. O’Hare was told the county had 245 employees in its IT department, but none has the skills to conduct such a study.

The funding for the studies would come from American Rescue Plan Act funds, county administrator G.K. Maenius said.

“The equipment is out of date, and the caliber of the cameras and the ability to basically have all the systems synchronize, that’s something that we need to work on,” Maenius told the Star-Telegram.

O’Hare took issue with spending a large of a sum of money without solving the problem. New commissioner Alisa Simmons, a Democrat who represents Mansfield and Arlington, agreed with O’Hare that it seemed expensive, but that the technology is “horrible.”

“Visually, the audio, it’s pretty bad,” she said.

Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks, a Democrat who represents southeast Tarrant County, said the technology was about integrating the network. O’Hare said he doesn’t disagree the commissioners’ livestream needs work, but he didn’t think it should cost that much money for a study.

The commissioners voted 3-1 to pursue the studies. O’Hare voted against the proposal, and commissioner Manny Ramirez, a Republican who represents Northeast Tarrant County, was absent.

The new county judge told the Star-Telegram following the meeting he wasn’t against every single study, but he believes that with the bright minds the county has on board, they should be able to come up with solutions for how to do things without paying for studies.

He believes the money could be better spent on other aspects of county government, like building a new training facility for the sheriff’s department and support for small businesses that may be hurting from pandemic shutdowns.

“There’s a time when studies can actually save money and they can be useful,” O’Hare said. “I think a lot of times the government relies on it, and I want to reduce the number of studies significantly that we do in Tarrant County. As you saw, I mean, that’s a lot of money to make a recommendation as to what we should do, not even counting how much it would cost to act on those recommendations.”

The debate is at the heart of O’Hare’s goals on the campaign trail as he ran for the county’s top office. O’Hare’s consistent promise to Tarrant County residents has been slashing the property tax rate by 20%.

“We owe it to our citizens and our businesses to make this the most cost effective place in Texas to live and raise a family and run a business,” O’Hare said.

Tax relief, while a goal for O’Hare, has taken the stage as one of the state Legislature’s biggest tasks heading into the 2023 session. He said he’s had conversations with Tarrant County representatives about how to accomplish his 20% cut.

O’Hare recommended a presentation on how requests for proposals worked at next week’s commissioners meeting.