Dave Rogers

For The Record

 

Orange County Commissioners topped off a busy Tuesday meeting with a long-sought pay raise for Sheriff’s Office deputies.

The two-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement between the county and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Employee Association calls for a 4% hike in pay for deputies, their first raise since 2013.

Also, commissioners approved a 2020 fiscal year budget of $47 million and a 2019 tax rate of 54.2 cents per $100 assessed value.

The budget included a 2% hike for the county’s non-union county employees.

In their previous meeting, Wednesday, Sept. 11, commissioners voted on a 2% pay raise for the 18 elected officials whose salary isn’t paid mostly by the state, such as district judges, district attorney and auditor.

However, the five members of commissioners’ court, agreed unanimously to put off their pay raises until they have won their next election.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Robert Viator made the motion.

County Judge John Gothia and Commissioners Johnny Trahan and Kirk Roccaforte face possible election challenges in 2020 while Commissioners Viator and Theresa Beauchamp will not be eligible for re-election until 2022.

“This is kind of a compromise,” Viator said. “I couldn’t in good conscience vote for my own raise.”

That sentiment was echoed by Gothia and the three other commissioners.

Tuesday’s big news was the new CBA, which is technically “pending” the end of 10 days of voting by union members, which ends Thursday, Sept. 19. That’s the soonest the new pact can be signed by all parties.

But Gothia said that the two-year agreement had already garnered enough positive votes by the deputies to guarantee its passage.

It was written into the 2020 budget.

“It’s all related to the revenue cap bill that’s coming in,” Gothia said, referring to a 2020 state law that will force counties to ask the people for permission to raise their taxes more than 3.5 % above the effective tax rate.

“We kind of knew that this was our opportunity to try to pay these guys some long overdue money, and we were able to come to an agreement on an extension with them.”

Gothia and Trahan negotiated on behalf of the county and deputies Mark Felts and Charles Williams represented the OCSOEA.

Trahan said the county originally offered the deputies a 6% raise that was contingent on them signing a pact with Sheriff Keith Merritt that did not include a “just cause” clause, thereby allowing the sheriff to hire and fire at will.

But the deputies, who turned down all pay raise offers (up to 5%) in 2017 negotiations to avoid benefits cuts made for all other county employees, wouldn’t deal with the sheriff this time, either.

The deputies did agree to the same holiday and disaster pay as the other county employees and to adopt the county’s retirement benefits policy for all deputies hired after the new budget takes effect, Oct. 1, 2019.

The current county policy calls for a newly hired employee to work at least 12 years for the county to be eligible for full county-paid retirement.

Before 2017, all county employees were allowed to add prior state employment (teaching, law enforcement) onto their county service and enjoy full lifelong retiree health insurance with as few as eight years of county employment. The deputies kept that unchanged in their 2017 contract.

Now, deputies hired before Oct. 1, 2019 – like non-union county employees hired before Oct. 1, 2017 – will be “grandfathered” and remain eligible for a full retirement after just eight years of county service.

The deputies will continue to enjoy another “old” county benefit, that of paying only 40 % of the cost for dependent health insurance. Other county employees split the cost 50-50 with the county.

Both the county and deputies agreed to drop pending lawsuits they filed against one another several years ago, Gothia said.

Greg Cagle, the OCSOEA lawyer, was asked how the county’s Gothia-led negotiations, which took place out of the public eye, compared to the 2017 public negotiations led by former County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton.

“Carlton didn’t negotiate,” Cagle said.

“This is a new group [commissioners’ court], and it damn sure couldn’t get worse. In fact, it’s exponentially better.”

Unlike in 2017, the county did not pay for an outside lawyer.

Commissioners voted unanimously in favor of every one of the 17 action items on Tuesday’s agenda, keeping the same tax rate – 54.2 cents per $100 assessed valuation – as the last two years.

The effective tax rate – the rate applied to current county assessed values that would generate the same amount of property tax revenue as last year – was 50.88 cents per $100, according to Tax Assessor-Collector Karen Fisher.

The 2019 county tax rate is a jump of 5.2% above the effective tax rate, about 25% higher than the 3.5% jump that would trigger a rollback election next year.

The budget approved anticipates a deficit of nearly $2 million. Revenues are shown as $45 million with expenditures of $47 million.

That would leave a fund balance of $9.5 million at the end of 2020, says County Auditor Pennee Schmitt.

The county opened Tuesday’s commissioners’ court meeting by declaring Sept. 17 as “Bridge City Independent School Board Day.”

The school board was named the “Outstanding” school board by Texas Region 5 Educational Service Center.

Commissioners OK’d Schmitt to pay $339,000 in weekly bills. Later, commissioners OK’d a lump sum payment of $384,000 to the Texas County District Retirement system to achieve a retirement plan rate of 15.85%.

The county contributed about $87,000 to the following non-profits for the 2020 budget year: Meals on Wheels, $45,000; Spindletop mental health services, $33,708; Garth House, $5,000; Court Appointed Special Advocate) $2,500; and Southeast Texas Resource Conservation, $500.