Dave Rogers

For The Record

 

It seems like déjà vu all over again.

Orange County commissioners rolled back one employee benefit cut and set their sights on another Tuesday with the majority saying the move will help the county hire and hold onto employees.

Also, County Judge Dean Crooks got a unanimous 5-0 vote to award no 2019 pay raises for elected officials.

And he said he’d like to cut pay for himself and commissioners.

But that came after Crooks and the other two first-term members of Commissioners’ Court, John Gothia and Johnny Trahan, won a 3-2 vote to increase the county’s contribution for employees’ dependent healthcare insurance from 40 percent to 50 percent.

They also teed up for next week a return to a pre-2017 vacation policy that grants county employees four weeks of annual vacation after 10 years of service and six weeks after 20, as Crooks instructed Human Resources Manager Lori Ardoin to put the matter on next week’s agenda.

“I’ve looked at it a lot the last few years,” Gothia said, “and the reason we’re making these changes on the back end [benefits that reward long-term employees] is because we can’t compete on the front end [starting salaries].

“Our hope was we were going to put it [higher salaries] on the front end. Then Harvey happened. Now we’re just training people to work somewhere else.”

The county’s two outgoing commissioners, Jody Crump and Barry Burton kicked off Tuesday’s benefits battle on the minority side of unsuccessful, 2-3 votes on motions made by Crump to keep in place benefit cuts made in 2013 and 2016, respectfully.

When Gothia made the motion to approve the 50-50 insurance split, Crump and Burton were on the losing side.

“We’re saying that this is going to be no impact for the budget but any time you do this, there’s an impact that’s going to be a negative impact,” Burton said when asked why he voted against the changes in insurance premiums and vacation benefits.

“The thought process that we can’t hire anybody because of this is hollow. We hired 68 people over the last year with this policy in place and we only had two positions open.

“The taxpayers need to be taken care of and we’re able to staff as the policy is now. A change of policy is going to cost us money, period.”

The change in dependent insurance premiums will increase county spending $80,000 in 2019, the court was told.

But the majority voters said rewarding employees will pay off in the long run.

“There were 68 new employees last year,” Gothia said, echoing Burton. “But that means 68 employees left.”

Along with saying elected county officials shouldn’t get a raise only a year after they got an average raise of $11,000 for 2018, Crooks blindsided commissioners by telling them in open court he hopes to cut his and their pay before the budget is finalized in September.

“I don’t like to blindside anybody, so I want to apologize to commissioners,” he said. “When we get to finalizing the budget, I’d like to look at these five positions [county judge plus the four commissioners] and see if we can be paid less.”

Crooks, who took office in May, has already turned down a $27,000 a year paycheck to be a part-time administrative law judge and the raise from $85,500 to $105,040 which the commissioners voted for 4-1 last summer, with only Crump opposing.

Crump was the only current commissioner in office in 2013 when the court voted to lower the county’s contribution for dependent healthcare insurance from 60 percent to 40 percent.

He and Burton joined with former County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton in 2016 to limit the vacation policy to one that topped out at four weeks per year after 20 years. That Burton, Carlton and Crump trio pushed through a number of benefit cuts over the opposition of the then-outgoing commissioners, David Dubose and John Banken.

Orange County paid out $2.47 million in bills Tuesday, with $2.3 million of that going to Ashbritt Environmental and Tetra Tech for removing debris left by Tropical Storm Harvey.

That money should be reimbursed by FEMA and the state.

About an hour Tuesday went to departmental employee reclassification votes for nine positions.

Commissioners granted six, agreeing job duties had changed, including one that moved back a pay grade. Three failed for lack of a motion to approve.

The county accepted a $8,400 donation from International Paper and agreed to pay $6,000 to have its announcements included on the free phone app “Slice of Orange.”

Nine inter-departmental line-item transfers were OK’d and a dozen Dodge Chargers and two trucks were transferred to surplus from the Sheriff’s and constables’ offices.