Conroe, April 26 – With no guidance for any particular method to find budget cuts, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court has left the County Department heads completely in the dark about the specific manner in which they are to find “across-the-board” budget cuts to propose in accordance with the 2017 Budget Packet which asks County Department heads to propose budgets with 5% cuts. In other words, County Judge Craig Doyal and the Commissioners Court have perfectly set up a budget process that is likely to fail to achieve any proposed budget cuts.
Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack attempted to provide some clarification to the County Department heads during the Court meeting. “Department heads should propose budgets that are 5% under the 2017 budget for operations and personnel,” Noack said. When Doyal raised the issue over confusion whether County Departments should fill vacant positions right now, the Commissioners Court failed to provide a clear answer to the County Departments. Noack suggested that the Department heads should make those decisions while keeping in mind that they will need to provide reduced budgets during the budget process for Fiscal Year 2018 which will begin in July, 2017. Doyal and Meador contradicted Noack. Meador said, “we don’t know. It may be something they need.”
Doyal complained, “We have a minimal operating budget in my department.” Doyal’s County Judge Department has 5 positions: Doyal, a vacant position with a budget of more than $70,000 in unspent salary and benefits, a “chief of staff” who works only part-time and receives a salary in excess of $118,000, and two secretaries who earn salaries and benefits totaling well over $100,000 with overlapping duties in a department that essentially provides no services.
Crazed Department Directors’ Meeting
At a Department Directors meeting that occurred at 1:00 p.m. today in Conroe, pandemonium broke out when the lack of guidance regarding budget direction from the morning’s Commissioners Court meeting came to the attention of the attendees. Several Department heads, particularly the Custodial Maintenance Director Lorena Garcia and County Engineer Mark Mooney, were visibly emotional during the meeting.
The tensions arising over the budget reveal the complete lack of understanding that the County Judge (Doyal) and Commissioners Court as a whole have with respect to the appropriate manner to conduct governmental budgeting. Zero-based budgeting requires that departments justify every expenditure in their Department each year with respect to the program goals of the Department. The fundamental question that arises in that budget process is what is the actual minimum expenditure needed to achieve particular Departmental program goals and purposes.
Zero-based budgeting and alternatives
Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson, along with his Chief Deputy and his Finance Director, are leading the only County Department which is engaging in zero-based budgeting methods to prepare for the hearings prior to adoption of the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget.
Across-the-board budget cutting is the obverse of zero-based budgeting. Rather than focusing on actual program necessities, across-the-board cutting places enormous, and often unnecessary, stress on Department leaders by requiring cuts without any relationship to the necessity of particular Department expenditures. Furthermore, the Budget Packet that the Commissioners Court provided to the Departments does not clarify whether law enforcement departments must also participate in the across-the-board budget cut proposals.
Doyal, Meador, Riley, County Auditor Phyllis Martin, and Doyal’s “chief of staff” jim fredricks have set up a budget process clearly intended to fail. None of them care to take the time or make the effort to engage in real program budgeting for each department. None of them engaged in the careful planning and cost recognition and allocation that are necessities in zero-based budgeting. None of them seem to care to do so.
Noack and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Clark have called for 5% across-the-board spending cuts in the next Fiscal Year’s budget. That would amount to $18.87 million of cuts. The Citizens Budget Committee has called for $100 million of spending cuts in non-law enforcement departments with an increase primarily in law enforcement departments of $40 million, for a net $60 million reduction. The Citizens Budget Committee cuts amount to just under 16% in reductions.
Nowhere in the Budget Packet is there any discussion of “zero-based budgeting.” Nowhere in the Budget Packet is there any discussion of line-by-line analysis. County Department heads and their employees basically have no guidance whatsoever other than Doyal’s policy that he wants to continue spending more tax dollars.
The difference in approach, however, is critical. The Citizens Budget Committee is examining every single line of the Montgomery County Budget and proposing line-by-line changes to the entire County Budget. The formal presentation will occur in early June, 2017, during the first Commissioners Court meeting during that month. The Citizens Budget Committee has met directly with several County Department heads and is in the process of meeting with several others. The Committee is examining necessary programs of each Department and then relating those necessities to actual expenditures in order to render a proposed budget. The Committee has rejected across-the-board cuts, especially since certain departments should not have cuts at all.