Montgomery County commissioners removed Treasurer Melanie Bush’s payroll-related duties at a March 8 Commissioners Court meeting after several county employees reported payroll errors. Bush will remain the county’s treasurer.
Commissioners will establish a new payroll department to be headed by former County Auditor Phyllis Martin, according to the motion made by Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack. Precinct 4 Commissioner James Metts seconded the motion, which passed 4-1. County Judge Mark Keough was the only opposing vote.
Commissioners did not hold a public discussion on the proposal and instead deferred the item to the meeting’s executive session. Commissioners also declined to comment on the decisions after the Commissioners Court meeting ended. In an emailed statement to Community Impact Newspaper, Bush said she was “disappointed” in the Commissioners Court’s decision.
“I am disappointed that Commissioners Court made the decision they did that will end up costing the taxpayers more money with the creation of a whole new department,” Bush said. “That the comments of experts in implementations and payroll as well as citizens of this county were not listened to saddens me the most.”
Bush was first elected in 2018 and ran for re-election in 2022. She was uncontested in the March 1 Republican primary and does not have a Democratic challenger in the November general election. According to county election results, Bush received 53,839 votes in the primary. She previously served as president of the Conroe ISD board of trustees.
Noack said prior to his motion that multiple employees had reported inconsistencies with their paychecks and W-2 forms. He sent out a Feb. 10 email asking employees for reported issues with their pay.
“So many of these issues, if better checks and balances were in place, our employees could have a better time with their paychecks,” Noack said.
Bush was called to the stand to respond to Noack’s claims. She said issues with W-2 forms stemmed from employees not understanding their forms, while issues with payroll were rooted in the Infor payment system, and following an initial report from the 284th District Court judge’s office, there have been no additional paycheck issues.
“I don’t think [this motion] is the way you should handle this,” Bush said. “Let’s use this to be better. Give me a chance to fix them.”
The county also provided a document online showing errors in employees’ IRS 457 payments. In a separate action, county Risk Management Director Michael Howard recommended normal contributions resume March 11, while affected employees have the option of either getting a double deduction or to skip one of their deductions. Commissioners approved that motion unanimously.
County authority over payroll
County Attorney B.D. Griffin told Community Impact Newspaper following the meeting there was nothing in the Texas Constitution requiring counties to designate payroll to their treasurer and noted some counties assign those duties to their auditor or human resources departments.
“The treasurer has two statutory duties per the constitution: to receive funds for the county and to disburse them,” Griffin said. “Everything else can be reassigned.”
When asked about the potential ramifications of having payroll under an appointed official, Griffin said commissioners still have the overarching responsibility for payroll duties and can be voted out.
In the county’s online agenda item relating to removing Bush’s duties, the county uploaded a 1997 Texas Supreme Court opinion from a Titus County case in which then-county Treasurer Cynthia Agan challenged the Titus County commissioners removing her payroll duty. The court found in the absence of the Texas Constitution and Legislature specifically naming payroll as a function of the treasurer, commissioners can remove that function from their treasurers.
Griffin said county commissioners did have authority to create a new payroll department, but commissioners would have to name their funding sources. Keough said the department would be “cost neutral” to the county but declined to answer further questions or provide more specifics.
Residents speak for Bush
Montgomery County residents spoke in favor of keeping Bush’s current duties, while some acknowledged difficulties with the new payroll system as well as the county’s refusal to change.
Brittany Vinson, a finance assistant with the county who works under Bush, asked commissioners to consider a committee to review payroll processes and read out an emailed response to Noack’s email.
“The county has so many outdated procedures due to, ‘It’s always been this way,’” Vinson said.
Several others spoke about difficulties in transitioning to a new system, claiming Bush should not be blamed. Fort Bend County Treasurer Bill Rickert also spoke during public comments, citing the case of former Fort Bend County Treasurer Jeanne Parr—who was jailed in 2003 after her election for the theft of county funds—as an example of when the treasurer should be removed.
“I’ve worked with Melanie on joint assignments,” Rickert said. “Montgomery County is very lucky to have someone like this.”
Some residents expressed concern that moving the treasurer’s duties to the county auditor’s office would reduce transparency and accountability. John Wertz, Montgomery County’s Republican Party treasurer, said removing Bush’s duties would not “streamline” the county’s processes.
“When you remove the treasurer’s duties, the taxpayer burden stays the same while the taxpayer accountability evaporates,” Wertz said. “Don’t go down this route.”
Written By: Jishnu Nair for The Community Impact Newspaper, Photo: Screenshot from Montgomery County Commissioners Court livestream