Dave Rogers

For The Record

Emotions ran hot at Orange County Court Tuesday afternoon as commissioners voted to reduce retiree health insurance benefits for employees who have not yet retired and took no action on a motion that would have given raises to some top county officials.

“Take other steps besides whittling down county benefits,” County Court At Law Judge Mandy White Rogers told commissioners before a standing-room-only crowd of about 50 people, the majority apparently county employees of which Orange County has nearly 400.

Rogers spoke before Commissioners Barry Burton and Jody Crump joined County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton in a 3-2 vote in favor of a sliding scale of reduced insurance benefits for employees who were planning to retire with fewer than 20 years of county service. Commissioners David Dubose and John Banken voted against the austerity measure.

“A lot of people I know came to work for Orange County because of the great benefits,” Rogers said. “I know insurance costs go up, but raise taxes instead of taking things away from employees.”

In recent weeks as the county prepares for a 2017 deficit budget year, commissioners have reduced county vacation benefits for future employees and sat through two marathon budget hearings where citizens made it plain they were not happy about a proposed tax increase of 5.9 cents per $100 valuation.

Previously,Orange County employees could retire with full health insurance benefits for life with fewer than 20 years’ work. Already this month, a policy change took out that option for new hires. Tuesday’s vote will cut new retirees with between eight and 12 years of service to 25 percent benefits, those between 12 and 16 to 50 percent benefits and those with 16 but less than 20 to 75 percent benefits.

The change takes effect Oct. 1.

The vote came midway through a three-hour meeting that began with a report from a public finance consultant from Austin announcing the county was rated Double A minus – just shy of the best Triple A rating — for its financial standing.

That rating came prior to the sale of obligation bonds the county issued this week to cover a $6 million energy efficiency project, one that is supposed to save the county much more than that over the next 15 years.

“What’s the driving force behind this?” Sheriff Keith Merritt said during the discussion on the cuts in benefits.

“It’s our future,” Burton, Precinct 2 commissioner, said.

Judge Carlton said since the worldwide financial crisis of 2009, the county’s annual payment in matching funds for employees’ retirement had doubled, to $3 million a year.

“We have $6.5 million in reserve funds. We’ve got a Double A minus rating, which is excellent,” Merritt stated to commissioners. “My question is exactly this, ‘Have you put a pencil to this?’

“Last year you said the same thing. ‘We’ve got a deficit. We can’t make it.’ Then at the end of the year, we had a surplus.

“Why pass it now? Wait until you get that answer. I don’t understand what urgency there is to pass that today.”

But comment wasn’t all against cutting employee benefits.

“Is it right to taxpayers to keep a promise we never made?” asked small business owner Daniel Blake Roberts, one of several to talk in favor of cuts.

“We didn’t agree to 100 percent (employee) benefits. It’s hard out there. I understand it’s a big sacrifice (for county employees) but we’ve already made our sacrifice.

“God willing, the economy will turn around. But the county commissioners are doing what we ask.”

No action was taken on an agenda item to consider a raise the salaries of most of the county’s elected officials, which would come with a price tag of about $100,000.

Immediately after that, Banken, the Precinct 3 commissioner, made a motion to reduce the salaries of the four county commissioners and Carlton, the judge, by $1,000 a month.

That would net the county a $60,000 savings, he said to applause from the audience.

But that measure failed 3-2, with only Dubose joining him to vote for the paycut.

“That’s easy to say when you’re not going to be here next year,” Burton said of Banken, who was defeated in his re-election bid.

One pay hike that did go through despite healthy opposition was a $4,600 bump for Carlton’s administrative assistant, Holly Wheeler, which the judge pointed out, would be a reclassification rather than a raise.

She’ll become a court coordinator as Carlton reactivates the County Court. Carlton said he planned to handle probate cases to save the county money.

But both Judge Troy Johnson and Rogers took their turn before commissioners to say they didn’t have a backlog of cases that required additional manpower.

“There is no backlog. We did not go asking for help. We don’t need help,” Johnson said.

The court-at-law judges agreed with commissioners that state law allows Carlton to preside over court cases if he wants. It was acknowledged that he could earn a $25,000 pay bump of his own if he spends 40 percent of his time – 16 hours per week – on judicial duties.

“At the end of the exercise, two judges say they’re not overbooked,” Dubose told Carlton. “You’ll spend 40 percent of your time doing this; does that mean you’ll be taking away from your work on commissioner’s court?

“The only people I see being helped by this are you and Holly.”

Banken made a motion to take no action on Wheeler’s reclassification but he and Dubose were outvoted 3-2. Carlton then moved to vote to reclassify Wheeler and it passed, 3-2.