Tommy Mann Jr.

For The Record

Tension was thick in Commissioners Court this past Tuesday as finances and benefits were again at the center of most discussions.

Orange County Commissioners Court met Tuesday afternoon in a specially called meeting to discuss several items, including the topic of vacation benefits which pertains to the hiring of future employees of the county.

Current employees of Orange County have the possibility of earning up to six weeks of paid vacation each year, depending on the amount of years of service with the county. In order to reduce savings to the county, Orange County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton had proposed a reduction in the amount of vacation which could be earned by future employees.

“In my opinion, I think six weeks of vacation is a lot,” Carlton said. “Between vacation and the 13 paid holidays employees have in Orange County, that is up to two-and-a-half months off in a year.”

Carlton proposed a cap for vacation at four weeks per year for all future employees hired on or after Oct. 1, 2016. Employees would be eligible for up to two weeks of vacation each year for the first 10 years of employment with Orange County. An employee could receive three weeks at 10 years and then four weeks upon reaching 20 years of employment.

“I think it is wrong to do this and I think we should keep the same policy we have now,” said John Banken, Orange County Commissioner of Precinct 3. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to hire qualified people because we keep chiseling away at these benefits.”

Commissioner David Dubose of Precinct 1 inquired whether these potential changes would impact those under contract through the collective bargaining agreement, which is mostly law enforcement personnel with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Any such action by the court would not impact those under the collective bargaining agreement.

“I don’t think it is worth the savings then because this only affects a small number of people,” Dubose explained.

Vickie Edgerly, District Clerk of Orange County, agreed it has become more difficult to hire qualified employees.

“We are competing wioth the private sector and they get an extensive amount of vacation,” she said. “And most pay more per hour. I think our benefits are a catch to help us get and keep people. We have very few carrots we can dangle to get people here.”

According to Lori Ardoin, HR director, Orange County has a total of 389 employees. Of those employees, 75 have 20 or more years of service, while 55 employees have 15-19 years of employment with the county. Another 51 have 10-14 years with the county, while 67 other employees have been with the county between 5-9 years. The remaining 141 employees have worked with Orange County five years or less.

“(The County) has already taken away catastrophic leave and maternity leave, so that is something to think about,” Ardoin said in reference to the possibility of reducing vacation time earned for future employees. “I think it is a good thing to have, in my opinion.”

The motion to reduce vacation earned for future employees was approved by a vote of 3-2 with Dubose and Banken casting the dissenting votes.

The next topic on the agenda was in regards to a potential change in retiree health insurance benefits for employees who have not yet retired. Current employees can earn full health insurance benefits after a relatively brief amount of time employed with Orange County, but Barry Burton, Orange County Commissioner of Precinct 2, proposed a change.

The proposed change would allow for an employee with 8 years of employment with the county to receive 25 percent of paid medical benefits, while 12 years would receive 50 percent, 16 years would receive 75 percent and 20 years would receive 100 percent health insurance coverage.

However, after a very lengthy and tense discussion on the topic, there was some question as to whether it should be continuous or cumulative service with the county, so the no action was taken on the topic and will appear on the agenda for Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Another topic of discussion involves a potential salary increase of approximately $25,000 for Judge Carlton due to the reactivation of the County Court on Sept. 1, 2016. The increase reportedly would come from the state and not impact Orange County taxpayers in any way.

Carlton has announced his intention to begin handling some cases as County Court Judge as allowed by Texas County Courts’ jurisdictional authority as established by the Texas Constitution Article 5 and other related government codes.

Commissioner Burton stated he had spoken with both judges in the County Court at Law and County Court of Law 2 and that there was interest in obtaining assistance to reduce case load.

“So, what you are saying here is we have such a back log of cases that we need another court?,” asked Judge Derry Dunn, Orange County Justice of the Peace in Precinct 2. “Why don’t we have another County Court at Law then?”

Carlton said it would be cost effective to use his role in County Court instead of creating a new County Court at Law as related costs for another judge, bailiff, court reporter and other employees would be approximately $250,000.

Mark Philpott, Orange County Constable of Precinct 3, asked Judge Carlton, who is also a reserve member of the United States Air Force, if this was required by law for him to serve in such a capacity.

“No, it’s not required,” Carlton answered. “I’ve opted not to do this until now because my role in the reserves will change in November. This is just part of being a county judge. All county judges have administrative and judicial duties. Some choose to exercise that option and others don’t.”

Commissioner Dubose stated he would prefer to wait until the court could gather more information on the topic and to hear from the County Court at Law justices, Judge Mandy White-Rogers and Judge Troy Johnson, directly as both were out of town on Tuesday at a conference.

No action was taken on the topic and it will appear on the Sept. 13 agenda.

In other news, Commissioners Court approved a request by Jessica Hill, executive director of the Orange County Economic Development Corporation, to contribute approximately $109,000 for the coming fiscal year.

According to Hill, municipalities which contribute to the funding of the Orange County EDC do so based on a per capita percentage. Those who contribute have voting member privileges, while those which are part of the organization but do not contribute are considered associate members.

Also, Commissioners Court approved the transfer of funds from two accounts in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to its general equipment account in the amount of $366,360, which will allow for the purchase of 10 Dodge Chargers for Sheriff Keith Merritt’s office.