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County Rejecting a Golden Egg

Curry County commissioner’s campaign promise causes clamor

The World — March 14, 2015 – by Carly Mayberry …

GOLD BEACH — When Tom Huxley ran for the Curry County commission seat last November, his platform was based on the promise that he’d only accept a $10,000 annual stipend rather than the $65,000 yearly salary that the commissioners in that county currently receive.

He also did not want the health insurance that costs the county upwards of $12,000 a year per employee. Huxley is retired and covered by Medicare.

The idea went over well enough with the voters of the economically challenged county for Huxley to defeat incumbent commissioner David Itzen by a 15-point spread. Huxley, known to be frustrated with the county’s government, had previously stated that it needed a structural overhaul and more transparency from the current commissioners.

But what otherwise might seem like a simple request by Huxley was evidently not so simple when it comes to the workings of county government and its established employee benefits.

On Tuesday, after previous email and phone correspondence between Huxley and county officials, the Curry County board of commissioners held a workshop to discuss Huxley’s continued request to forgo the regular commissioner salary and health benefits.

That’s because Curry County has had an agreement with the Oregon Teamsters Employee Trust for health insurance coverage for their non-represented employees since December 2000. The contract requires the 47 non-bargaining employees that it covers to participate whether they need the coverage or not. Under the Trust’s rules, employees are not allowed to opt out.

“I did not need it or want it,” Huxley said about the health insurance. “By what authority were they telling me I must take it? There’s the challenge. Because we said so? Well, that’s not an authority.”

Another issue involved is Oregon’s minimum wage law and how it relates to Huxley’s requested $10,000 stipend.

After discussion between commissioners Susan Brown, David Brock Smith and Huxley, along with Curry County payroll and personnel coordinator Julie Swift and assistant county counsel Shala Kudlac, it was determined that the county would look into alternative insurance options for non-represented employees.

“We’re looking into getting new insurance for our employees,” acting chair Brown said. “We’re gonna have to. We can’t tell a commissioner that he has to do this or that. We can’t obligate him to do something he doesn’t want to do.”

For now, Swift will look into other insurance options while Kudlac said she will consult with the two private attorneys who have been working at no charge on Huxley’s behalf. One of those is labor law attorney Bruce Bischof, who routinely represents employers on such matters.

Kudlac was assigned to deal with the issue by county counsel Jerry Herbage. He declined to comment on the issue, explaining that the case had been assigned to Kudlac. Kudlac, who works out of Carleton Law Offices in Bandon, did not return repeated phone calls regarding the matter.

At Tuesday’s workshop, Huxley, who noted the two revised positions from lawyers representing the Oregon Teamsters Employee Trust Non-bargaining Unit written in two separate letters, attributed the discrepancy to the possibility that this situation hasn’t yet come before them.

“Nobody’s ever said ‘no’ … now be creative and see what we can do to work around this — because the ones who need to benefit are the taxpayers of the county, not Tom Huxley, not the Teamsters, not Shala, not Dave, not Susan — but the people,” Huxley said.

Huxley has not received any pay for his job so far due to his refusal to sign employee paperwork presented to him in January on his second day in office, which would have bound him to the Oregon Teamsters Employee Trust agreement. He noted that it was during that meeting with Swift that he first learned about the correspondence between the county and Fallon Niedrest, a legal consultant used on labor issues. In the email dated Nov. 21, 2014, between Niedrest and Swift, Niedrest explained that paying a commissioner a stipend would violate minimum wage laws.

“They had known this seven weeks prior and it wasn’t disclosed,” Huxley said. “Had we known about this, think of what we could have accomplished as a solution?”

In an email addressed to Herbage on March 5, Huxley wrote, “I was elected by the citizens of Curry County to represent (to the best of my ability) their best interests as commissioner in exchange for a $10,000 stipend as full compensation. I was not elected to serve at the pleasure of the Teamsters Union or any other collective bargaining group.”

He continued, “In my wildest dreams I never imagined it would be so difficult to not accept wages and benefits totaling approximately $350,000 over a period of four years from a county teetering on financial collapse.”

Huxley was, however, allowed to sign a document opting him out of receiving the county’s PERS (Public Employees Retirement System).

While those in attendance at Tuesday’s workshop discussed other possible solutions, Swift maintained that the current benefits under the Oregon Teamster Employees Trust were the best deal for the county economically and benefit-wise for its employees. She also said that breaking such an agreement on behalf of one employee would be punishing the others.

In terms of other counties in Oregon, non-represented employees of Coos County are also on a similar Oregon Teamsters Employees Trust with a “no opt out” rule. However, Bishof, who represents legal scenarios in six Oregon counties, said none of those other counties that he represents have such a plan. Many counties have health insurance through CCIS (City-County Insurance Services).

For his part, Commissioner Smith said the question regarding whether or not Huxley could opt out of the usual commissioner’s salary and benefits should have been addressed before Huxley’s campaign pledge was ever made.

“It’s a very difficult time in Curry County’s history,” Smith said. “There are county employees who need this benefit package.”

He cautioned that breaking the trust agreement could ultimately cost the taxpayers more and broached the idea that the county just pay for Huxley’s premium whether he needed the insurance or not.

Public comment was also part of Tuesday’s workshop. Carl King, a retired attorney and Nesika Beach resident, spoke on Huxley’s behalf. He said that since the day he was sworn in, county officials have been trying to coerce Huxley into taking benefits that he doesn’t want or need.

“To try to force Tom to do something and then if he won’t do it to blame him for harming 40-some families in the county — that is just not what I expect my government to do and I, too, applaud him for standing up and sticking to his guns,” King said. “It may be hard to re-negotiate but to sit here and just say, ‘Well, Tom Huxley is going to force 47 families to lose their health insurance’ is absurd. Your job is to find solutions not to just stick problems at us. I’m tired of every time someone comes up with something a little different the answer is always, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ We should be looking at a way to do it. That’s what the voters expect.”

King was the author of the defeated Measure 8-76. The proposed home rule charter, which was supported by Huxley, would have replaced the three paid county commissioners with five volunteer citizens who would receive a $10,000 stipend a piece and a county manager to take on the day-to-day issues of the county’s 20 departments. It also would have made four of the six elected departmental positions appointed.

 

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