Image: 410th District Judge Jennifer Robin, Montgomery County’s Chief Administrative District Judge, emphatically told the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, September 11, 2018, that the Commissioners Court was acting outside of their authority in approving a Fiscal Year 2019 County Auditor’s Budget with a $309,000 reduction from the current fiscal year. The Commissioners Court reversed its vote from six (6) days ago by a 4 to 1 vote to increase the County Auditor’s Budget back to an amount approximately $75,000 less than the current fiscal year budget.
Conroe, September 12 – 410th District Judge Jennifer Robin, the Chief Administrative District Judge, and four of her District Judge colleagues – Judge Phil Grant (9th District Court), Lisa Michalk (221st District Court), Tracy Gilbert (418th District Court), and Patty Maginnis (435th District Court) – told the Montgomery County Commissioners Court in no uncertain terms that the Commissioners Court was way out of line in voting to reduce the Fiscal Year 2019 County Auditor’s Budget with a $309,000 reduction from the current fiscal year, when the Board of District Judges has not yet acted to determine the Auditor’s Budget. Under Chapter 84 of the Texas Local Government Code, the Board of District Judges has the exclusive authority to set the salaries for the County Auditor and for her “assistants.”
September 5 Commissioners Court meeting
With hyper political Montgomery County Auditor Phyllis Martin looking on in anger on Wednesday, September 5, the Commissioners Court voted 3 to 1 to reduce the County Auditor’s Budget by the full amount of the Budget Office which took over the Auditor’s budget functions in March, 2018. In passing the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget, on the motion of Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack, seconded by Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley, the Commissioners Court reduced the Auditor’s departmental budget by $234,492 to $1,950,593.
On July 27, 2017, at the urging of Noack and County Judge Craig Doyal, the Commissioners Court created a Budget Office and took the “chief budget officer” function away from the County Auditor. The Commissioners Court hired Amanda Carter in March, 2018, as the first Budget Office Director and provided the Budget Office with a $309,961 budget for Fiscal Year 2019. Both Noack and Doyal repeatedly assured the citizens of Montgomery County during open meetings of the Commissioners Court that they would reduce the County Auditor’s departmental budget by the amount of the Budget Office departmental budget. Noack and Doyal explicitly made that promise on September 5, 2017, when the Commissioners Court passed the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget.
The Montgomery County Board of District Judges is holding a major hearing on Friday, September 14, 2018, at 12 noon in the Overflow Courtroom (the old 410th District Court) in the Main Courthouse at 301 North Thompson Street in Conroe. During that hearing, the Board of District Judges, under the leadership of Chief Administrative Judge Jennifer Robin, will review and authorize the County Auditor’s proposed budget and may also make the determination whether to renew the 2-year contract of County Auditor Phyllis Martin at all.
Montgomery County is the largest County government in Texas that does not have a Certified Public Accountant as the County Auditor. In fact, there is no CPA in the Montgomery County Auditor’s office at all.
Noack explained on September 5, “If the Board of District Judges set the Auditor’s salary higher than $1,950,593, the Budget Office will file an amendment for the Commissioners Court to approve, OR, the Commissioners Court would eliminate the Budget office saving the $309,961.” If, however, the Board of District Judges approves the $1,950,593 budget for the County Auditor, then there would be no need for an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget, which the Commissioners Court approved.
Yesterday’s (September 11) Commissioners Court meeting
After Judge Robin found out about the Commissioners Court action on September 5, she contacted the County Judge’s Office to place an item on the agenda for the September 11 Commissioners Court meeting in response: “CONSIDER AND DISCUSS THE ACTION TAKEN AND THE CHANGES MADE ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2018, TO THE COUNTY AUDITOR’S BUDGET CONTROLLED BY THE DISTRICT JUDGES, AND ANY CONSEQUENCES OR EFFECTS RELATED THERETO, AND TAKE ACTION AS NECESSARY.”
In her presentation on behalf of the Board of District Judges yesterday, Judge Robin made clear “we are not bound by the same schedule for modifying the County Auditor’s salary and her assistants’ salary, which we can do at any time” according to a Texas Attorney General Opinion. Judge Robin also noted that, “even on September 5, it was mentioned in that meeting, that the Board of District Judges plans to have that vote.”
“There was no need to take the action that was taken that we believe exceeded the authority of this Court. Because of issues of the province of separation of powers, and the province of the powers that are given to us, as well as the Texas Supreme Court’s commentary on our duty to preserve the powers that are given to us, I believe that it’s appropriate and proper to take this action today,” Judge Robin told the Commissioners Court in asking them to reverse the decision to remove $234,492 from the Auditor’s Budget.
“It’s statutory that the County Auditor’s salary and her assistants’ salaries are set by the District Judge. Period,” Judge Robin said. “And, as Mr. Yollick was talking about, there’s a reason for that. The whole idea is that she [the County Auditor] has so much power and influence essentially that, for her to be accountable to you guys as opposed to the people who the Legislature could find are the furthest removed from County government, because we are actually State employees, that was the whole intent and purpose.”
The Commissioners Court, in response, flailed about for several minutes regarding whether they had a duty to restore the entire $309,000 to the Auditor’s Budget or whether they could merely restore the $234,492 removed last week. Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin provided an esoteric legal argument that the Commissioners Court’s action last week was “voidable but not void.” Upon advice from Assistant County Attorney Amy Dunham, it became clear that the Commissioners Court had not properly noticed restoring the full $309,000 to the Auditor’s Budget.
Therefore, on the motion of Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley, who had voted to remove the $234,492 six days ago, the Commissioners Court voted to put the $234,492 back into the Auditor’s Budget, until the Board of District Judges meets on Friday, September 14, 2018, at 12 noon, to discuss the County Auditor’s Budget and whether they should re-appoint Phyllis Martin for another two-year term as County Auditor.
After the meeting, Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack, the lone dissenter on the vote yesterday, told The Golden Hammer, “Last week, Commissioners Court took the conservative, taxpayer-friendly approach with regard to the Auditor’s budget. What my presentation and court minutes reflect is that the proposed changes were contingent upon the Board of Judges’ approved salary budget for the Auditor’s Office. I clearly stated that, ‘If the Board of Judges sets the auditor’s budget higher than $1,950,593, the Budget Office will file an amendment for the Commissioners Court to approve.’”
Noack continued, “While I respect the district judges, today’s antics had little to do with law and much to do with pomp and circumstance dedicated to political theater. The action taken today does nothing to resolve the real issue concerning the Auditor’s Office budget. It is my continued hope that the Board of Judges recognizes the need to eliminate these duplicative services and salaries and bring forth a responsible order.”