Image: Taxpayers are bleeding money, while the Montgomery County Commissioners Court continues to spend as though the County government and Governor never induced a COVID-19 depression.
The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Conroe, May 26 – On Tuesday, May 26, 2020, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court will continue to act in denial that the County government and Texas Governor Greg Abbott precipitated an economic crisis by their illegal and unauthorized business closure and lockdown orders. Instead of looking to ways to save beleaguered families and individuals on their tax bills, the Commissioners Court is aggressively expanding local government spending in new and imaginative ways.
The focus of monetary bleeding on May 26 clearly will be the Montgomery County Courthouse where the Board of Judges has decided to make their own lives much easier at the expense of taxpayers. On the Court’s “open agenda,” one of the first items the Commissioners Court will consider is: “Consider and approve increasing position 4659-8420-1, Associate Judge, by $8,433.62 to an annualized salary of $132,470 effective May 30, 2020. An additional $3,423.06 of salary and benefits is needed for the remainder of the fiscal year. Please name a funding source, department is requesting the use of vacancy savings from the Jury Fund as the funding source. Authorize Budget Office to effectuate all necessary changes.”
The proposal to increase the Associate Judge position salary in the middle of the year comes after recent sessions of the Commissioners Court focused on that very issue. Both Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack and the County Judge have voiced their objection to mid-year salary and position increases. They both voted against a similar proposal two weeks ago after Montgomery County Clerk Mark Turnbull proposed such salary changes, even though Turnbull demonstrated his proposal would actually save taxpayers money.
It’s ironic, therefore, that the next item for discussion after the Judges’ proposal to give an Associate Judge a raise is “Consider and discuss guidelines for HR and Budget Office for salary increases, new positions, and position upgrades for FY 2021 budget requests.” Clearly, both Budget Director Amanda Carter and Noack object to the concept of disregarding decisions made during the Budget hearings in order to give mid-year increases.
The great problem the Commissioners Court will confront is “Consider, discuss, and take appropriate action on Fiscal Year 2020 Court Operations Budget.” The Court Operations Budget has been out of control for several years. A Report of Budget Director Amanda Carter and County Auditor Rakesh Pandey as of April 28, 2020, reveals, “Seven months of FY2020, or 58.33% of the fiscal year is complete. Overall expenses are 3.5% above the estimated year to date budget, reflecting total anticipated expenses of $4,784,375.37. Expenditures are currently over monthly allocated budget due to criminal appointed attorney expenditures in the County Court at Laws and CPS vouchers that were signed after September 30th. For FY 2020, 15.46% of the expenses were related to Civil cases, 78.62% were related to Criminal cases, and the remainder were General Court Administration costs.”
Clearly, the Commissioners Court needs to address cost overruns in the Office of Court Administration and in Court Operations. The problem comes in the cost of indigent criminal defense. The number of cases is close to projections but the Office of Court Administration has done a poor job managing expenditures.
After initial publication of this story, former Director of Court Administration Nathan Jensen, provided the following additional insight:
“The source of the Court Operations overruns goes to CPS cases.“CPS cases used to appoint attorneys via a contract system at a flat rate, at first $883,240 per year, then $989,240 per year. After one of the dozen or so attorneys was convicted of a DWI, Commissioners decided to cancel the contract, in the middle of the contract year. Two big problems with that decision. First was they did so on the advice of the County Attorney, who acts as the prosecutor in CPS cases, creating a conflict of interest. Second, they did not consult with any member of the judiciary on the matter.“If you look at recent CPS expenditures they shoulder the highest percentage of the overruns, because how does the Budget Office or OCA know how many CPS cases will be filed, and more importantly, how many attorneys are going to be appointed per case? Criminal expenditure has formulas, CPS does not. Having the contract system was a boon for efficiency. The cancellation of that system opened Pandora’s box, where instead of 50 to 60 dollars an hour average under the contract, you by law had to pay the hourly felony rate (which before their contract defender system was $100/hr).”
Those aren’t the only increases in spending the Commissioners Court will gleefully embrace. The Information Technology Department seeks a “Digital Evidence Curator,” another court-related expenditure increase. At least, Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley (the new conservative?) has stepped up to fund that position out of his Commissioner Precinct 2 budget. Nevertheless, the new position will add $95,000 to the next year’s budget which would likely come out of the General Fund on the backs of the taxpayers.
Finally, as always, the Commissioners will approve $10,025,429.70 of expenditures out of “Payment of Accounts” without oversight, discussion of deliberation.
Regardless of the COVID-19 depression local government has caused, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court will continue to bleed “other people’s money” at an increasing pace.