Montgomery County officials said they are seeking clarification if the county’s pay structure for its county court judges complies with state law. If not, there could be a payroll liability, officials said.

At the May 12 Commissioners Court meeting, officials said they are unsure if state law requires counties to pay longevity, or pay increases related to years of service, for county court judges. House Bill 2384, which passed in June 2019, requires county court judges to be paid not less than $1,000 than district court judges, but another state statute implies it is up to county discretion, officials said.

Montgomery County does not currently include longevity pay when calculating the minimum salary for county court judges, although it does for district court judges.

Claudia Laird, county court at law judge No. 2, said the issue will require clarification from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, but she still wanted the court to be fully aware of the issue. Laird said the county auditor sent a letter to Paxton on May 5 seeking clarification, but the attorney general’s office has up to six months to respond.

In the meantime, Montgomery County and the rest of the state are in the dark on what is required, Laird said.

“This is something that has been debated throughout the state because it's new legislation,” she said. “The only one who can really clarify this for the entire state Is the attorney general.”

County Attorney B.D. Griffin said during last fiscal year’s budgeting process, his office was researching the issue and reached out to the State Office of Court Administrations for explanation.

“At that time, their opinion and our opinion was it was discretionary with the commissioners court as to whether to award the longevity pay,” Griffin said. “It’s a potential conflict between two statutes is why there’s confusion on it, and it's certainly subject to different interpretations.”

In Montgomery County, there are four county judges who will have served at least 12 years by next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and would be affected, officials said. The longevity pay is an additional $8,400 per year per judge.

Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack, who put the item on the agenda, asked whether commissioners should consider this issue when planning for their next budget session.

“I would think with regards to your budgeting issues ... quite frankly, everything kept as it is, you could be accruing a payroll liability that is not being accounted for,” Laird said, adding this does not affect her salary.

“I hate that these judges feel they are entitled to this compensation, and we’re not really dealing with it; we’re just kind of kicking it down the road,” Noack said. “I think it’s something we should at last be considering in the next budget session.”

Laird emphasized the issue is not about the appropriateness of the compensation but rather if the county is following the law.

“I’m not trying to take money out of my colleague’s pockets; they’re really not asking you for any raise or any consideration of that. They just want to know what the law says and to make sure we’re in compliance with it,” she said. “That is it.”