Conroe, July 21 – The Board of District Judges will finally have the long-awaited opportunity to make their financial mark on the Montgomery County government when they meet on Friday, August 10, 2018, at 12 noon, in the Overflow Courtroom (the old 410th) in the southeast corner of the Main Courthouse, Second Floor. The Board of District Judges has set a hearing on the County Auditor’s Office budget and salaries (as well as compensation for court reporters) for that day.
It’s an event that’s been a long time coming for Montgomery County citizens who have asked the judges to take charge of the Auditor’s Office, as the Texas Local Government Code requires them to do.
410th District Judge Jennifer Robin, 9th District Judge Phil Grant, and 418th District Judge Tracy Gilbert have been particular leaders in the efforts finally to bring oversight to the troubled Auditor’s Office, one of the largest in Texas that neither has a certified public accountant at the helm or even any CPAs on staff. County Auditor Phyllis Martin and her staff have regularly failed to follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles as promulgated from the United States Government Accountability Office in its “Yellow Book” publication.
Earlier this year, the Board of District Judges ordered an “external assessment” of Martin by an independent accounting firm. The problem with such an assessment is that the assessor will largely depend upon Martin for information. The Golden Hammer has confirmed that the external assessment is complete, although the Board of District Judges has not yet made the review available to the public.
Martin has made clear she wants a large raise, even though the County government is hemorrhaging from the failure of Martin, County Judge Craig Doyal, and the Commissioners Court to address wasteful spending for as along as Martin has been in the County Auditor’s Office. As a result of Martin’s failure to address spending issues on a department-by-department basis during her tenure as chief budget officer, the County government now finds itself substantially short of cash for Fiscal Year 2019 especially with all of the new spending initiatives Doyal is pushing to support his true constituents, the County vendors and engineers who give Doyal large campaign contributions and play a lot of golf with him.
If the Board of District Judges were to award Martin a raise, she’d be receiving it for begging rather than for merit.
There’s another major issue, however, that the Board of District Judges must address: the amount by which the County Auditor’s Office budget should decline, since she is no longer the chief budget officer with those functions transferring to the $280,000 per year Budget Office.
On July 28, 2017, the last day of the so-called “budget hearing,” which was really just a closed meeting of the Commissioners Court, Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal announced that the County government would have to pay approximately $230,000 less to the Montgomery Central Appraisal District, which charges taxing entities based upon projected tax collections. Since the County government had passed the 20% homestead exemption, which citizen Kelli Cook had originally proposed, the County’s collections were below original projections.
Therefore, Doyal and Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack proposed the creation of a “budget office.” That proposal was a response to a proposal of the Citizens Budget Committee to create a free budget office composed of citizen volunteers. Of course, Doyal would never allow citizens any involvement in the elite government, so he proposed creation of a new bureaucracy in the Montgomery County government instead. The $230,000 saved went directly into the Budget Office. Additionally, Doyal had a “ghost” employee position under his budget of approximately $50,000 that Doyal never spent. That’s how the Budget Office’s Budget became $280,000.
At the September 5, 2017, final budget discussion, members of the Citizens Budget Committee complained that the $280,000 spent on a new Budget Office should come from the County Auditor’s department budget, since that was from where the budget function came.
Both on September 5, 2017, and on March 20, 2018, Precinct 3 Montgomery County Commissioner James Noack assured the citizens of Montgomery County that the Commissioners Court agenda in a future meeting would include a proposal to reduce the budget of the County Auditor’s Office, since she will no longer be the County government’s “chief budget officer” after the Commissioners Court voted in a secret meeting to hire Amanda Carter for that position.
As the clamor among citizens intensified, however, it rapidly became clear that Martin and Doyal never intended to reduce Martin’s County Auditor’s department budget. Their excuse for not reducing Martin’s budget was that the County Commissioners Court had not legal right to change the Auditor’s budget, because the Board of District Judges set her budget.
Now, however, there’s no reason for the Board of District Judges not to make the budget reductions. Of course, the Board should conduct an independent study of Martin’s budget rather than relying upon the bureaucrat’s own budget request and recommendation, as the Local Government Code requires the District Judges to conduct oversight.
Citizens should feel inclined to become actively involved in this process, even though actions by judges normally are not the subject of lobbying or political activity (nor should they be under our American and Texas systems of justice.) Under Canon 5 of the Texas Judicial Conduct Code, judges may not engage in inappropriate judicial activity or “make statements that indicate an opinion on any issue that may be subject to judicial interpretation by the office which is being sought or held.” Therefore, for example, it would be inappropriate for citizens to ask Judge Robin or Judge Grant how they would rule on matters coming before their Courts. (Both of them are excellent judges who do a superb job following the law.)
Nevertheless, the District Judges’ actions in overseeing the County Auditor are not “issue[s] that may be subject to judicial interpretation.” Rather, they are important administrative and financial duties which the Texas Local Government Code imposes on the Board of District Judges.
The citizens have taken it on the chin for the failure of the Commissioners Court to reduce the County Auditor’s Budget at least by the amount of the Budget Office budget during Fiscal Year 2018, even though Doyal and Noack promised they would do so repeatedly. The District Judges have every ability to step into that situation and right that wrong. Citizen vigilance in this process is fair game and important.