Empson tells it like it is!
<<<An alternate view on proposed property tax>>>
By Greg Empson, former Curry County commissioner candidate, Gold Beach – Curry Coastal Pilot – February 23, 2013…
Editor’s Note: This is a re-post. The Curry Coastal Pilot refused to publish his recent text. No surprise, unfortunately.
Sheriff John Bishop is anxious to have citizens know the amount of his salary according to a February 16 Pilot article by Jane Stebbins titled “Sheriff: Salaries no secret”. I applaud the sheriff for being open about having his salary published. However, the article is deceptive as there is no mention of benefits: the article provides only the most visible component of his pay.
As a taxpayer, I am interested in the total cost of each county employee including all benefits. Likewise, county employees must be made aware of the enormous cost of benefits provided to them and understand this is part of their total compensation package.
The sheriff’s annual salary is $69,200 but when all benefits are added, the total compensation exceeds $100,000. The average benefit package for all county employees (2012-2013 County Master Payroll) exceeds 60 percent of gross payroll. Effective July 1, 2013 that figure will increase to approximately 65 percent.
Taxpayers are paying for benefits that few, if any ever receive in the private sector. From a specific discussion of the sheriff’s total compensation, it is a logical step to discuss the proposed law enforcement/ property tax levy, and the manner in which the elected officials have seen fit to address the situation.
During the 2012 election, the four county commission candidates, myself included, agreed on several points. We assured voters we would cut our salary and not raise taxes. Now, after being elected, all three commissioners agree the only way to save the county is to raise taxes. They have not reduced their salaries. Curry County seems to be complacent, as we do not hold candidates accountable for the promises they make before they are elected to represent us.
In 2012, we heard commissioners say we were $2 million dollars short in the budget; then we heard we will be $3 million short. Current commissioners have now decided to put a property tax measure on the May ballot that will more than quadruple our $.59 per $1,000 of assessed property value and raise $4.5 million per year. Why so much?
We are told this five-year levy is a stopgap measure to see the county through the next five years, before any of the commissioners’ ideas can take effect. How many decades have our elected officials had to realize O & C Funds were not forever, and implement prudent measures that would allow Curry County to become self-sufficient? Why should we now believe that this stopgap tax increase is only temporary and that they will have the county on the right course at the end of that time?
Union contracts expire this year and the county is currently negotiating with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). There has been no mention of county employee benefits in any news articles. Since the 2007 economic downturn all of Curry County’s citizens have suffered, except for one of the county’s largest employers – the county itself. Both local newspapers print one side of the story – we need to raise taxes. Now is the time to ask unions what part of “we are out of money” do you not understand.
All benefits are negotiable and taxpayers know the proverbial “gorilla” in the room is employee benefits, but no one mentions them.
At the end of January the county had 164 employees including 45 in Public Health, according to county payroll staff. In a January 30 Pilot article titled “Curry County officials say tax measure is only way” staff writer Jane Stebbins reports commissioner Itzen saying after departmental spinoffs, the county is down to 55 FTE’s, (full time employees) including elected officials. 164 employees minus 45 Public Health employees (spinoff) equal 119 employees, not 55.
The problem is unsustainable benefits. Two blatant examples are health insurance and PERS (Public Employees Retirement System). In August 2012 David Brock Smith stated that he would not join PERS; the unions must understand they can’t continue to receive PERS and COLA’s (cost of living allowances); we don’t need any more taxes. He has now joined PERS, has proposed a property tax ballot measure and is silent on any collective bargaining concessions.
Currently each employee receives a minimum of $1,000 per month for health, dental, and vision insurance. That amounts to approximately $1.5 million dollars each year. If that benefit were lowered to $500 per month the county would save about $750,000 per year.
Currently PERS benefits amount to approximately 20 percent of employee’s gross pay. That increases to 25 percent July 1, 2013. The county pays both the employer and the employee portion of PERS. If county employees pay their 6 percent portion the county would save approximately $500,000 per year. Renegotiating just these two benefits would save $1.25 million per year. I am confident another quarter million dollars could easily be saved starting with cutting commissioners salaries and benefits.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been wasted on studies and meetings that consume an enormous amount of staff time, including that of the sheriff who is on record during discussions with Citizens’ Advisory Committee members stating nearly half of his time was consumed in preparing for and attending these types of meetings. The 2009 Blue Ribbon Committee law enforcement study alone cost taxpayers $100,000.
I believe our commissioners have taken the easy way out. The path of least resistance is a property tax measure on the May ballot and if it does not pass it is the citizens’ fault if the county fails. All the while the commissioners have done nothing to alleviate the situation.
Only after citizens see substantial changes in their county government will they be receptive to any type of revenue generating measure.