County Governance

Bill Neinast

The subject of last week's column was the fuzzy math of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi occupying the equivalent seat in the House of Representatives.

It’s time this week to try to decipher or calculate the answer to this formula of local politics:  275+250+67,000,000=5,133.33+4,064.56+27,500,000.

If you cannot figure that equation, there is another black mark on our education system.  The answer is very simple if you keep up with local politics.

The first half of the equation reflects the 67 million dollar budget of the city of Brenham that is managed by a Mayor with a monthly salary of $275.00 and six council members, each  earning a whopping $250.00 each month.  

That is to be balanced with the second half that records the much smaller 27.5 million dollar budget of Washington County that requires a county judge taking home a monthly check for $5,133.33 and four commissioners with monthly salaries of $4,064.56.

In fairness to Judge Brieden,  it must be noted that the current budget provides for a monthly salary of $6,001.66 for the County Judge.  In keeping with his campaign promise, however, Brieden takes the five thousand dollar salary that was in effect when he assumed office.

The real question here is why does it take $16,539.16 a month to manage a 27.5 million dollar budget but only $1,775.00 monthly to manager a 67 million dollar budget? 

The quick answer from the court house will be that the city is really run or administrated by the City Manager with a monthly salary a bit more than the combined salaries of the judge and commissioners.  That, however, is comparing apples and oranges.

The first big difference is that the City Manager’s salary is for a full-time position while the county management’s pay is for what is essentially part-time employment with the real management coming from the other elected officials.

In the city, every department head works for the City Manager who has the authority to hire and fire them.  In the county, every department head is elected by the citizens and, technically, is answerable to the commissioners’ court solely through the budget.

Not too many years ago, the county commissioners were commonly called Road Commissioners.  That is when their main responsibility was to maintain the county roads in their precincts.  A crew and machinery were assigned to each precinct and houses in a “county barn” in the precinct.  The crew worked for the commissioner of that precinct.

Today, all the road material and equipment is in one location under the supervision of Don Werth, a Professional Engineer.  The fairgrounds are under the supervision of Jeff Hinds, a full-time manager.  The outstanding Washington County EMS is setting state standards under the capable hands of Kevin Deramus.  The divisions or operations in the court house like the County Clerk, Treasurer, Tax Assessor-Collector, etc. are under the supervision of capable elected officials.  

When the county was under the supervision of working Road Commissioners, they were paid at a much lower rate (adjusted for inflation) than today’s commissioners and routinely met for formal meetings only once a month.

Today, the Washington County Commissioners’ Court convenes every Tuesday for less than 30 minutes in most cases.  The general routine is to issue proclamations in honor of something, authorize the payment of bills and some line item transfers in various budgets, approve contracts negotiated by the Fair Grounds Manager, and other routine stuff.

Undoubtedly each member of the court answers questions, suggestions, and complaints (some irate) from their constituents each week.  While they are answering intermittent phone calls, however, the other elected officials of the county are providing the real services of the county on an eight hour a day basis.

So here’s the perspective.

As mentioned here previously, administration of the Washington County, Texas, government is a model of overpriced inefficiency.  

In fairness to the court, though, it must be noted that much of this inefficiency is imposed from on high.  The antiquated organization of county or commissioners’ courts in Texas was created in the 19th Century when the transportation and communication systems were very limited.  Subsequently, the legislature has continually fiddled with local government’s business and imposed mandates that might make sense in a few counties but not in all.  One size does not fit all feet.

There is, nonetheless, one bright side to this picture.  All the business of the Washington County Commissioners’ is conducted in sessions open to the public.  It is unfortunate that more citizens do not attend the meetings to see what they are paying for.

Unlike any other public forum I know, the local court permits public participation in the discussion of any item on the agenda.  In other venues, public comment is limited to a short period at the opening of the session and may be separated from the formal consideration of the item by many minutes or hours.

Why not attend the meetings of the Washington County Commissioners’ Court each Tuesday morning and see if you are getting what you are paying for?  


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