Montgomery County’s Budget Office boondoggle: as the County Commissioners Court, District Judges point fingers at each other, taxpayers bear the cost

Pointing fingers of blame at everyone else.

[Publisher’s hint: it’s the Commissioners Court’s fault, not the fault of the Board of District Judge.]

Conroe, July 20 – The whole creation of a Budget Office in the Montgomery County government appears to be the latest scam to create a placeholder to continue to tax Montgomery County citizens. Events at the July 10, 2018, Commissioners Court meeting revealed that, once again, the Commissioners Court is trying to divert the blame to the Board of District Judges, when, in fact, it was the Commissioners Court itself that assured the citizens of Montgomery County that the County Auditor’s budget would be reduced to account for the costs of the Budget Office, which took one of the Auditor’s primary functions away.

Here’s how it happened. On July 28, 2017, the last day of the so-called “budget hearing,” which was really just a closed meeting, Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal announced to the Commissioners Court 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.

Interestingly, when members of the Citizens Budget Committee appeared before the Board of District Judges to ask them to take the action to reduce Martin’s budget by the amount of the new Budget Office, the judges responded that it was the Commissioners Court’s duty to amend the County Auditor’s budget.

Meanwhile, Martin just looked on and laughed at the complete inability of her superiors to take the action they had promised to the taxpayers.

As part of the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget, the Commissioners Court created a Budget Office which removed the “chief budget officer” function from Martin. Since Martin’s Department Budget includes budget services totaling at least $348,000 (after a close examination of the Personnel Description Questionnaires for the County Auditor’s Department reveals), and since Martin is no longer the County’s budget officer, then Martin’s County Auditor budget should drastically decline for Fiscal Year 2019.

Despite the clear opportunities for immense cost savings from the County Auditor’s budget with the removal of the budget function from her responsibilities, Martin has proposed no budget reductions at all. Martin’s expenses for supplies and services total $74,870 in the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget. Martin has proposed an identical $74,870 for supplies and services for Fiscal Year 2019 and is actually requesting an increase in the County Auditor’s salaries and employee benefits expenditures.

Noack spoke with The Golden Hammer on March 21, 2018, about the delays in getting the reduction in the County Auditor’s Budget accomplished. “The budget officer is just getting in place. County Auditor Phyllis Martin was out all last week. There is concern that the Commissioners Court doesn’t have the ability to reduce the auditor’s budget. We need to get clarification from the District Judges and the County Attorney.”

Noack was unequivocal with respect to his position on this issue: “I believe all expenses associated with budget should be stripped from budget of the County Auditor,” Noack told this newspaper.

Budget Office Director Amanda Carter’s new County bureaucracy, called the “Budget Office,” has a price tag over $280,000, which County taxpayers had to pay as part of the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget. Noack said on March 20 that he “hoped” the reduction in the County Auditor’s Budget would be on either the March 27 or April 10 meeting agendas. It’s not there. Noack’s comments on September 5, 2017, were stronger. He assured the citizens that the Commissioners Court would include that action on an upcoming agenda.

It never happened.

On July 10, 2018, Noack discussed the issue in the Commissioners Court and said, “When the court created the Budget Office, the intent I believe was to extract as many costs out of the Auditor’s office to fund this newly-created position and office. There seems to be some issues and discrepancies on whether the Court has the authority to do that, must the district judges do that, how do we work the auditor to help her identifying these costs…”

In order to assist Noack and the Commissioners Court to point the finger of blame at the Board of District Judges, Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin chimed in and agreed that the Commissioners Court had no authority whatsoever to change the County Auditor’s department budget.

But wait…

The citizens have waited ten months. The reduction in the County Auditor’s budget is not even under consideration, even though the calculation for how much to reduce her bloated department would be an easy calculation.

The County Commissioners Court has altered the budget of the County Auditor on many occasions through budget amendments without seeking District Judge approval. If they can alter that budget with budget amendments, there should be no reason they can’t take those funds away from the County Auditor at this point in time. If nothing else, the County Commissioners Court could sequester the funds so that the County Auditor could not spent them.

Montgomery County citizens should demand and expect that the Montgomery County Commissioners Court reduce the County Auditor’s Office Budget by at least $348,176.47 to reflect the decision of the Commissioners Court to move the Auditor’s budget function to a separate “Budget Office.” At the conclusion of the “budget workshop” on Friday, July 28, 2017, the Commissioners Court decided to set up a separate Budget Office to permit the County Auditor to focus on her audit duties.

The Golden Hammer obtained Position Description Questionnaires (PDQs) for the County Auditor’s Office to analyze how much money the move of budget functions away from the Auditor’s Office might save taxpayers. Of course, neither Doyal nor the Commissioners addressed reducing County Auditor Phyllis Martin’s proposed budget despite the reduction in her office’s functions during the July, 2017, budget “public hearing” when Doyal would not permit regular citizens to speak.

Although PDQs were not available for every one of the twenty-seven (27) employees in the Auditor’s Office, several were available and provided the ability to establish a base of the amount of money by which the Commissioners Court should reduce the Auditor’s Budget. The Board of District Judges must establish the Auditor’s Budget. They approved her proposed budget on June 30, 2017, but that occurred long before the Commissioners Court voted to remove a major part of her duties to another County Department. The Commissioners Court passes budget amendments routinely, including amendments to the County Auditor’s Budget.

Here’s the calculation of how much of a reduction should occur in the County Auditor’s Budget:

First Assistant County Auditor Angela Blocker spends 20% of her time on budget matters, so her functions are reduced by $30,609.72, which includes salary and benefits.

A Budget/Financial Reporting Supervisor spends 45% of her time on budget matters, so her functions are reduced by $46,895.05, which includes salary and benefits.

A Budget Analyst spends 100% of his time on budget matters, so his or her functions are reduced by $85,263.72, which includes salary and benefits.

A Financial Reporting Analyst spends 10% of her time on budget matters, so her functions are reduced by $8,526.37, which includes salary and benefits.

A Financial Systems Specialist spends 5% of his time on budget matters, so his functions are reduced by $7,380.92.

Two Grants Accountants spend 70% of their time on budget matters, so their functions are reduced by a total of $118,427.10, which includes salaries and benefits.

The Golden Hammer estimates that County Auditor Phyllis Martin spends 25% of her time on budget matters. Therefore, reducing her functions should reduce the County Auditor’s Budget by $51,074.59, which includes salary and benefits.

Please note that all of the reductions reflect the percentage of total salary and benefits for each of the positions.

The total savings on salaries along should be $348,176.47.

It’s beginning to look more and more as though the so-called “Budget Office” was little more than a pretext to spend tax dollars inadvertently saved when the citizens demanded a 20% homestead exemption.

 

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