Image: On March 15 (the Ides of March), 2018, a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University in University Park, Florida, collapsed. The collapse of the brand new government-constructed bridge was tragic and ironic, since FIU has a reputation for its program in accelerated bridge construction. Similarly, the drive of the Montgomery County Commissioners Court to boost bloated County government salaries is rushing taxpayers to collapse.
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy” – Alexander Tytler or Alexis de Tocqueville (quotation attributed to both historically).
Conroe, May 30 – Growing government salaries have dominated every meeting of the Montgomery County Commissioners Court during the past several months. Despite a 2017 Salary Survey, under the leadership of former County Human Resources Director Diane Bass, in which Bass and her Committee recommended against increased salaries for members of the Commissioners Court, because they were already way too high, the Commissioners Court has voted itself largesse in the form of two three percent (3%) pay raises since Bass’ and her Committee’s unanimous recommendation against any pay raise.
Montgomery County’s Commissioners Court is two months away from formal consideration of the Fiscal Year 2020 Budget. County government taxes have grown geometrically at least since 2004.
In 2005, the County government’s total expenditures were $119,777,565. Only fourteen years later, in Fiscal Year 2019, the County government’s spending as tripled to $344,381,573. During that same time period population in Montgomery County grew from 372,993 in 2005 to approximately 576,000 in 2019, according to the United States Census Bureau, an increase in population of 54.43%.
Between 2005 and 2019, there was inflation of 55.81%, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
By those numbers the increase in the size of Montgomery County’s government should have grown no more than 110.24% between 2004 and 2019 to a ceiling spending amount of $251,820,353. Therefore, Doyal, Riley, and Meador pushed Montgomery County government spending – and taxation – $92,561,220 more than the level to which it should have grown, or $344,381,573.
Montgomery County government salaries are vastly higher than similar salaries in the private sector, primarily because the Commissioners Court votes itself money out of the public treasury and looks to government employees as a base of core political supporters who provide them electoral support. For example, Commissioners receive $173,871.56 in salaries, a cell phone allowance of $959.62, and County benefits of approximately $74,100.24, for total compensation of approximately $248,931.42.
In comparison, senior construction project managers, who usually have far greater responsibilities than do County Commissioners, earn an average of $102,843 in the Greater Houston Area, according to glassdoor.com and indeed.com. The private sector benefits are roughly half the percentage of Montgomery County’s government employee benefits. In other words, Montgomery County government employees at all levels make at least twice what competing positions would earn in the private sector but without the risk of economic downturns or poor performance evaluations.
In other words, Montgomery County government employees at all levels make at least twice what competing positions would earn in the private sector but without the risk of economic downturns or poor performance evaluations.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States Department of Labor issued its Employee Compensation study on March 19, 2019, and found that employer compensation costs for state and local government workers average $50.55 per hour, while private industry workers average $34.05 per hour. Historically, private industry workers earned higher compensation but government employees enjoyed better benefits. In 2019, however, government employees earn substantially higher compensation plus government employees enjoy vastly greater employee benefits than their harder-working counterparts in private industry.
Regardless of those trends, the Montgomery County Commissioners Court has voted more and more money for higher and higher salaries. Private citizens can’t keep up with the tidal waves of salary increases. The salary increases will pose a substantial challenge to the Commissioners Court as they approach the Fiscal Year 2020 budget “hearings” at the end of July, 2019. The salary increases now will make meaningful spending reductions far more difficult.
It’s important to note that the salary increases provide taxpayers with no additional service whatsoever. In fact, high government salaries tend to result in lower quantity and quality of service to taxpaying users of government “services.”
There’s a strong argument to support the conclusion that the Montgomery County government largely exists to support itself and to serve itself, because, outside of law enforcement, it’s difficult to argue that the County government provides any meaningful contribution to the community. Furthermore, the Montgomery Sheriff’s Office largely operates autonomously. The largest law enforcement agency has its own Finance Division for budgeting, responds to Public Information Act requests independently, and sets it own policies for risk management. The Sheriff’s Office even has independent software for its core government functions.
Last two Commissioners Court meetings
The last two Commissioners Court meeting – May 14 and May 28 – illustrate the terrible salary problem which the taxpayers face, because the Commissioners Court isn’t managing or overseeing. Instead, they’re just spending to make themselves feel good and to make their core constituents, other County government employees, feel good. They’re somewhat blindly voting themselves largesse from the public treasury.
On May 14, 2019, Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack seemed to complete his secret goal of hiring former Courier blog editor Andy Dubois as a full-time public relations consultant on his County government staff. Originally, after the rest of the Commissioners Court discovered they had voted to hire Dubois as a County government employee, Noack responded by explaining that Dubois was merely coming to work as a low-paid Operator III who would learn how to repairs roads and bridges and then move into the position of then-leaving Matthew Beasley who had managed Noack’s road and bridge operations before his election as Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace. On May 14, in another secret action on the so-called “consent agenda,” the Commissioners Court gave Dubois a promotion to “Manager of Precinct Projects” and gave the former news blog editor a raise to $103,745.46, plus approximately County government employee benefits of $41,809.42, for total taxpayer-funded compensation of $145,554.88. Why isn’t Noack himself the “manager of Precinct projects”?
At the same meeting, Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley promoted an Operator III Troy Schatte and gave him a salary increase of $1.90 per hour. Noack, who used to object regularly to pay raises for County employees in the middle of the budget year, didn’t utter a peep, because Noack himself is now guiltier than most of his colleagues of engaging in the same very expensive practice of providing mid-year salary increases.
Over the past several meetings, the Commissioners Court has voted to give substantial pay raises to Constable Captains and Constable Chief Deputies. Law enforcement officers deserve fair compensation and community support. The purpose of the middle-of-the-year pay raises, however, was to make up for reductions in their car allowances and to provide them uniformly with County vehicles rather than allowances for private vehicles. Unfortunately, Budget Director Amanda Carter disclosed on May 14 that the Commissioners Court action is increasing insurance costs to the County taxpayers, because County employees are “getting in more car accidents” when they’re driving County vehicles.
There were at least nine (9) other secret promotions, which the Commissioners Court approved, during the May 14 Commissioners Court meeting without any discussion.
During the May 14, the Commissioners Court did defer the hiring of a new Medico-Legal Investigator for the Forensics Department.
Also during that meeting, County Treasurer Melanie Pryor Bush, who seems very conscious of her spending of tax dollars, closed three positions in her office and created three new positions without increasing her Department budget. While those new positions didn’t increase the budget during Fiscal Year 2019, the big question which those actions beg is whether those changes will drive Bush to ask for a higher Department budget for Fiscal Year 2020. Precinct 4 Constable Philip Cash took similar actions during the same meeting.
There’s an interesting example of how the Commissioners Court and County government elected servants are playing with next years budget. The example springs from popular District Attorney Brett Ligon. Here’s the agenda item from May 14:
“Consider and approve setting compensation for position 4351-7801-1, Asst. Chief Investigator, at $108,500 plus certification, effective May 18, 2019. An additional $10,313.38 is needed for salaries and benefits for remainder FY 2019. Please name a funding source.”
Of course, the Commissioners Court blindly approved the new hire, since it only required $10,313.38. Nevertheless, that’s only the additional funding necessary for the remaining four months of Fiscal Year 2019. The Commissioners Court didn’t discuss how much the new position would cost taxpayers in Fiscal Year 2020, which begins October 1!
On May 14, the Commissioners Court ballooned the County government payroll by $75,762 for a Library position which the Library Department has held vacant for at least seven months. If the County government could survive without that salary for that long, why would the Commissioners Court lock such a high salary into place now with creation of a new position?
Two weeks later, on May 28, the Commissioners Court warmed up with approval of four promotions within the super-secret “consent agenda.”
In the open portion of the Commissioners Court meeting, the Court approved transfers and salary increases for three different County Departments. During the discussion of Precinct 3 Justice Matt Beasley’s request to hire an administrative manager at the salary of $77,988.98 per year, Noack strenuously objected. Noack’s argument was that Justice Beasley’s decision to hire a current County employee at her current salary in a different Department would put her position in Judge Beasley’s office $10,000 per year higher than any other Justice of the Peace Department employee in Montgomery County. The Commissioners Court voted three (Meador, Metts, Keough) to two (Noack, Riley) in favor of approving the hire, which will increase Beasley’s salary for his administrative manager substantially.
The County government has continued to weaken private citizens substantially. Property tax rates are skyrocketing. Services are flat. The number of employees in the County government continues to grow. Services are flat. The price of County government employees continues to increase. Services are flat.