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Commissioners to electorate, ‘Equity does not extend to plebeians’

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By Leslee Kulba – The last time the Buncombe County Commissioners discussed the overall budget, they were trying to close a $1.5 million deficit. Since payroll accounts for the hugest part of the budget that the commissioners can control, and since spending is on-track to outstrip revenues in the near term, Interim County Manager George Wood suggested some changes.

First, he proposed moving to merit-based pay and getting rid of the county’s automatic cost of living adjustment. The commissioners, with employee advocate and Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger very visible in the audience, voted against the change.

Wood also proposed bringing some of the employees’ “rich” health insurance plans more inline with those of comparable counties in the state. The commissioners, with employee advocate and Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger very visible in the audience, voted against the change.

Wood then suggested doing away with the county’s annual leave buyback program. The commissioners requested more data, and Director of Employee Benefits and Risk Management Curt Euler estimated eliminating the program would save the county $1.4 million this year. If employees were allowed to cash in up to one week’s unused leave each year, the county would save an estimated $370,000. If the cap were raised to two weeks, there would be no savings at all.

Chair Brownie Newman described the county as an outlier. Only one of nine comparables offered the program, and that jurisdiction capped the benefit at one week. Buncombe County had no cap and allowed employees to bank up to 54 leave days payable upon separation, any overage being rolled over to sick time.

An employee who, at a previous commissioners’ meeting, said she would rather lose the buyback program than have her health insurance coverage reduced, really made an impression on Newman. To avoid a tax increase, he reasoned the commissioners would either have to completely eliminate the buyback program or cut benefits they had already decided were more valuable.

Commissioner Al Whitesides reminded the board of their fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers. Even if they were to do away with the buyback program, Buncombe County would still have one of the best, if not the best, benefits packages among its peers.

Whitesides wasn’t a fan of the buyback program, anyway. He said leave time is important because people need to be able to spend time with their families. When people are allowed to work through their leave time and then sell the hours back to the county, they get paid twice for the same hours. He made a motion to eliminate the program, and Newman seconded it. Commissioner Joe Belcher asked if he could make a friendly amendment, and Newman said, “You can try.”

Belcher said he did not want to penalize the many for the abuses by the few. One person had been selling the county almost $60,000 in “unused” annual leave a year, but that person is no longer working for the county. Belcher also said he wanted to phase in the change.

Commissioner Robert Pressley asked for a general profile of who cashed in the most leave time. Euler told him those who had been working with the county the longest, which tended to be the higher-paid employees, would be accruing more hours to cash in. That said, he did not know how applying a cut on the basis of pay or longevity would stand up to standards for equity.

Commissioner Ellen Frost was sympathetic. She said the county’s sheriff’s deputies were earning below the area’s median wage, and they work dangerous jobs that put them at high-risk for needing health benefits. A lot of them, she said, are working two jobs, so, “taking a vacation is out of their realm.”

Whitesides said the commissioners were conflating two issues. If employees are underpaid, the commissioners needed to adjust the pay scale. When he worked in the private sector, compensating employees fairly was imperative. Nobody should have to sell their leave time to collect wages earned.

Whitesides added when he worked for First Union, the company had a fund for employee crises. There were rules; for example, an application had to be made and approved, and people were only allowed to use it once. During public comment, Don Yelton asked if the county didn’t have insurance to cover medical attention required for injuries sustained on-the-job.

Belcher’s friendly amendment to cap leave buyback at one week was accepted 4-3, with Newman, Whitesides, and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara opposed. Then, the vote to continue the program with Belcher’s cap was 5-2, with only Whitesides and Beach-Ferrara opposed.

In Matters that Matter –

Newman opened the meeting with a moment of silence followed by prayer. Commissioner Mike Fryar then welcomed back Jerry Rice A regular participant in public comment, Rice had missed several meetings to spend time with his dying wife of 49 years.

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