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Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare prioritizes business growth, jail population for next year in office

Tim O'Hare, a white man wearing a dark suit, sits on a high chair on a blue-lit stage, gesticulating as he speaks. Another man sits to his left, close to a podium.
Miranda Suarez
Tarrant County Judge Tim O'Hare, right, responds to a question from Greater Arlington Chamber of
Commerce Board Chair Mike Gerro, left, during O'Hare's second annual State of the County address at the Sheraton Arlington Hotel on May 22, 2024.

At his State of the County Address on Wednesday, Republican Tarrant County Judge Tim O’Hare explained where he wants to look for cost savings for the county and its residents next year -- through economic development, a smaller jail population and more mental health services.

In a packed banquet hall at the Sheraton Arlington Hotel, filled with elected officials and county staff, O’Hare laid out his priorities for county government. One plan is to get more involved in drawing new businesses to Tarrant County.

“I don't know about you guys, but I'm tired of reading that Frisco got this, and Plano got that, and Dallas got this, and Irving got this,” O'Hare said.

Tarrant County’s tax base is overwhelmingly residential, O’Hare said. Drawing in more businesses would move some of the tax burden away from homeowners.

Individual cities usually focus more on economic development, but the county could take the lead in unincorporated areas, O’Hare said. Those are areas that don’t belong to any city, and there’s still plenty of unincorporated land, even in a county as fast-growing as Tarrant.

What is a county judge?

The Tarrant County judge doesn’t work in a courtroom. He’s the chief elected official in Tarrant County, and he presides over the Commissioners Court, the governing body that controls the budgets for county departments like public health, the prosecutor’s office and the county jail.

"We want to get a splashy relocation,” he said. “We want to get something that everybody says, wow, that's coming here, I’m excited about that.”

Last year’s State of the County address, O’Hare’s first, focused on his successful push for property tax cuts. O'Hare is a lawyer who previously served as mayor of Farmers Branch and leader of the Tarrant County GOP. He swept into office in 2023 on a promise to make Tarrant County more conservative.

O’Hare has positioned himself as a hardliner on spending. At Commissioners Court meetings, he often grills county staff about expenses like equipment purchases and employee travel.

With help from his colleagues on the court, the county’s “culture of spending” has gotten better, he said. Commissioners cut $8 million in spending in their latest budget, passed in September.

“It’s your money, and I will never forget that,” he told the crowd.

Jail and ‘serious mental health challenges’

One big expense on O'Hare’s mind for the next year is a proposal to build a new jail.

The jail population has been on the rise for the past few years, according to the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office. Jail officials had to stop accepting new prisoners after overcrowding last summer.

Instead of building a new facility, O’Hare wants to reduce the jail population, he said.

“I'm not sure we know what it would cost to build a jail, but, I mean, it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It could reach a billion,” he said.

On top of the population problem, the jail is persistently short-staffed. Earlier this year, the Sheriff’s Office had 200 open jailer positions, and county recruitment efforts didn’t make a dent.

The jail is also full of people who have “serious mental health challenges,” O’Hare said.

Right now, about 60% of people in the jail receive services from MHMR, the agency that runs mental health care in the jail, Waybourn told commissioners at their meeting Tuesday. He’s previously called the jail “the largest psychiatric hospital in Tarrant County.”

That’s part of why Tarrant County needs its own state psychiatric hospital, O’Hare said.

When people are declared incompetent to stand trial, they could end up on the waitlist for a bed in a state psychiatric hospital. The waitlist is long, and people can be stuck in jail for months or years while waiting for a spot.

At the beginning of O'Hare’s tenure, Tarrant County asked the state Legislature to fund a study into building a new, local state psychiatric hospital .

“I wrote letters to the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, every one of our state reps and state senators,” he said.

The legislature denied the request, but the county will ask again during the 2025 legislative session, O’Hare said.

Charles Eckert, a white man dressed in a black sheriff's deputy uniform, peeks into a blue closed cell door in a hallway lined with jail cells.
Yfat Yossifor
Charles Eckert, executive chief of the detention bureau, looks in on a medical cell Thursday, March 7, 2024, at the Tarrant County jail in Fort Worth.

Mental illness in the jail has found a new spotlight in the last few weeks following the death of Anthony Johnson Jr. in April. He died after a detention officer kneeled on his back while he was restrained. He told officers he couldn’t breathe, video clip of the incident shows.

Johnson was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to his family, who condemned the sheriff’s response to Johnson’s death. They told reporters they got little to no information about what happened to their loved one for weeks.

O’Hare has been a staunch public supporter of Waybourn and praised him during his address Wednesday.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have Bill Waybourn as our sheriff,” he said.

Overall, O'Hare said he hoped to guide the growth of Tarrant County so it retains its personality: warm, kind, and slower-paced.

“We've just got good people here, and we've got a lot of neat things to share,” O’Hare said. “I just don't quite think the secret is out yet, but I think there's a lot of us working on it."

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.