Cut county costs, not public services

by lewwaters

Contributed by Margaret Tweet

Clark County employees contribute $0 to insurance premiums for Medical, Dental, Vision, Long term disability, and Life insurance. Clark County Commissioners voted on October 12 to extend the $0 contribution plan through 2011, add another holiday (14 yearly), and freeze wages for 3 large union groups. In 2012 county employees may contribute to premiums, and a definite salary hike of 2% was granted. This agreement sets the standard for the rest of the county, about 1,640 employees altogether.

The agreement period is also negotiated, and doesn’t match the county budget period. The county budget spans 2 years, Jan 1, 2011- Dec 31 2012, but this labor agreement covers a 3-year stretch from July 1, 2009 through June 30, 2012. The October decision helps protect employee benefits and salaries from any budget axe. It makes better sense to include labor in the regular budget process for the same period. The Clark County 2-year budget for 2009-2010 is $975.3 million, and the labor budget is $295.6 million, approximately 30% of the total budget. A 5% healthcare premium increase is slated in 2011; an average of $53.82 per employee per month, and the county will pick up the tab (Columbian 10-13-2010)

Meanwhile, healthcare premiums for the Camas School District rose 12.5-14.5% on October 1, 2010 and employees will bear the increase. Since 2005, the nation-wide average workers’ contributions to insurance premiums have gone up 47%. Workers now pay on average $333 monthly for family health coverage, which is roughly 30% of the premium costs. (2010 Employer Health Benefits Survey, Kaiser Family Foundation, see also Family Health Premiums Rise 3 Percent to $13,770 in 2010). If each county employee were to pay their fair share and contribute $333/ month to insurance premiums, that would amount to $6,553,440 annually for county coffers. In December 2009, County Commissioners claimed a $12.5 million budget deficit justified their vote to hike property taxes by 1%. In addition, they cut public services, such as locking bathrooms at regional parks for a couple of months during winter. If county labor costs were more in line with the private sector, public services could be better maintained.

Other government agencies are moving toward more equitable plans.

For example, The FVRL library started employee contributions to medical premiums in 2004, now at a rate of 7.5% for employees and 10% for family, for about $100 per month toward family medical coverage. FVRL is headed to mediation for labor contracts for the next period, which can be up to 3 years per state law. State employees contribute about 12% to insurance premiums.

Both the county and the library offer overly generous vacation that accrues and is paid out when the employee leaves. However, the county top limit on vacation accrual is double that of the library, at a whopping 62 days! The library has 10 holidays, vs. the new county plan of 14. Meanwhile, use it or lose it is common for private company plans. On top of all that, both local and state government employees enjoy generous PERS retirement plans, a nearly extinct benefit in the private sector.

To their credit, since 2009 the county has cut labor costs by eliminating about 207 positions though retirements, not filling vacancies, and layoffs. Businesses that have survived this recession have likewise had to cut jobs. Nevertheless, reasonable measures such as employees contributing a fair share to insurance premiums, and cuts in perks like extra holidays and vacation are in order.

Why should county benefits far exceed those of the rest of the community that pay for them through taxation?

( Margaret Tweet is a 13 year Clark County resident who, through her community involvement was instrumental in the decade long struggle with FVRL libraries in Clark, Skamania and Klickitat counties to filter out pornography on library computers, advancing open government by urging CVTV broadcast of Clark County Commissioner meetings, successfully urged the city of Camas to move their yearly planning meeting to town instead of lavish Skamania Lodge retreats and is an open critic of government overspending. Margaret has a BS in Finance from the University of Oregon.)

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