Brown County commissioners on Tuesday reduced a raise for District Judge Steve Ellis from $7,000 to $2,000 for the new fiscal year because they didn’t know the budget — which they approved last month — contained that much of a raise for Ellis.
Commissioners corrected the oversight by approving a budget amendment to make the adjustment to Ellis’ salary.
The $2,000 raise Ellis now has is identical to what most other county employees received in the budget. Justices of the peace and constables received $5,000 raises.
Brown County Auditor Jennifer Robison told commissioners she had erred when she put Ellis’ salary in the budget because she had misunderstood an attorney general’s opinion related to a judge’s longevity pay.
“There was a misinterpretation of the law by me,” Robison told commissioners. “I apologize for that.”
Commissioners court members said if the $7,000 pay hike for Ellis had remained in the budget, they would have been required by law to give Brown County Court-at-Law Judge Sam Moss a larger increase than the $2,000 hike Moss received with other county employees.
A district judge’s annual salary cannot exceed that of a court-at-law judge by more than $1,000, Brown County Judge Ray West said, citing state law.
West said he believed, when commissioners approved the budget last month, that the budget contained $2,000 increases for the two employees in Ellis’ office, but not for Ellis, who is not a county employee.
Moss said he learned about the increase in the budget for Ellis’ salary on Oct. 10 and believed the auditor had secretly put in a raise for her employer — the district judge — without commissioners knowing about it.
Moss also said he began trying to learn what his salary was going to be for the new fiscal year, since Ellis’ salary affects his.
“I agree, he’s a great judge and it would be great for him to get the maximum that he wanted,” Moss said told commissioners.
Robison replied, “It wasn’t because he wanted it. It was because what I read, and I how I interpreted the attorney general’s opinion … Judge Ellis just asked for what the county was giving everyone else. This was me. This was all on me. This was my fault.”
Moss, addressing Robison, then said, “The concerning part for me is that your budget affects everybody in the county, and when you’re talking about longevity, not longevity, it affects both myself and Judge Ellis, and you never will, you never have, just come and spoken to me about it. … It affects me directly, and I have to be the one coming in here and asking for these changes …
“For me, it looks like on numerous fronts — politically and everything else — it makes me look like I’m coming in here and being greedy, asking for increases, when I’m just asking for the law to be followed. But you never will talk to me and it directly affects me.”
Robison said, “Judge Moss, I’m not comfortable talking to you. I don’t even know where to find you.”
“You can find me in my office,” Moss replied. “It’s where I am every day. But I don’t find you in yours. So I’ve been down to your office when this first came up, hoping we wouldn’t have to come to this point, we could just address it.”
Robison she believed Moss was calling her a liar.
“Had I not said anything about this, it would have been better for me,” Moss said. “I could’ve just left this alone. Nobody would have ever known the difference. Next year, you all would have had to bump me up.”
In that scenario, West said, the county would not only have been required to raise Moss’ salary next year but give him back pay for the current year.
After Moss finished speaking, West said, “You’ve had an opportunity to vent.”
“It’s not a vent,” Moss replied.
Commissioner Gary Worley said, “The only thing I see here is that no one of us can individually adult a salary at any time. It’s always a court decision.”
Robison told commissioners she had not tried to be deceptive and that she owns up to her mistakes.
“A mistake was caught, and it’s being amended, and that’s all that matters,” West said. “Not for a minute does this court thing that you are trying to defraud the court.”
Speaking in his office after the meeting, Moss said he’d received “conflicting information” earlier from the auditor’s office on the matter. “We’re not talking about a lot of money, but we’re talking bout doing the right thing,” Moss said.
“By me bringing this up, I lost money. I brought it to their attention to save the county money. Had I not said anything, it was not going to get fixed. An auditor can’t just go and give raises to people without getting it approved.”
Moss had made earlier attempts to address the commissioners court. Prior to a meeting earlier this month, Moss had asked to be put on the agenda to speak to commissioners. He was briefly placed on the agenda and then removed.
Prior to another commissioners court meeting, Moss told West he wanted to sign up to address the court during the citizens comment portion of the meeting. West told Moss he could not speak about an item not on the agenda.
West, also speaking after Tuesday’s meeting, said he’d learned about the matter from a commissioner before Moss brought it up. “My position was, that we needed to amend the budget,” Moss said.
Robison said later in her office that she had not intentionally done anything wrong. “My interpretation of the law was incorrect. I admit that. It was not on purpose,” she said.