County has ‘Cadillac’ employee benefits plan

In 2005, I was surprised to discover that Clark County employees contributed nothing to insurance premiums for medical, dental, vision, long-term disability and life insurance.

Citizens urged Clark County Commissioners Stuart, Boldt and former Commissioner Morris to consider that this was no longer the norm, to no avail.

In contrast, since 2005, the average workers’ contributions to insurance premiums have gone up 47 percent and workers are paying $333 per month toward the cost of family health coverage. (2010 Employer Health Benefits Survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, www.kff.org/insurance/090210nr.cfm).

The county explained that they have not performed studies that compare to the private sector for the salary and benefit review process. Comparisons are only made with other county governments, an insulated view. The county didn’t complete their homework.

On Oct. 5, 2010, we again urged commissioners to require county employees to contribute toward insurance premiums in fairness to the majority of workers who do. I asked what the timeline was for the decision and how the public could get involved. Commissioner Stuart explained that the actual negotiations are hidden to the public under various laws. However, a public hearing on the budget would be held in early December with information out ahead of time and opportunity to comment. He failed to mention that the very next week, Oct. 12, a top-secret three-year labor agreement with the largest union group would be on the consent agenda.

In Riverwalk style, commissioners voted to approve the agreement at the same meeting that it was first made public. I asked for a copy of the agreement that day since there was nothing available in print at the meeting, and received a summary two days later.

According to commissioners and staff, county labor has already been given a budget figure. How can the county hold a true budget hearing in December, when labor costs, over 30 percent of a nearly $500 million county budget, have already been decided? Accepting public input on labor costs at that time is simply a charade.

Citizens can see commissioners in action on CVTV, (www.cityofvancouver.us/cvtv/cvtvindex.asp, 10-5-2010, public comments, 10-12-2010 Consent agenda)

Commissioners voted to extend the $0 contribution “Cadillac” plan in 2010 and 2011, although wages are frozen for both years. In 2012, employees are “expected” to contribute to insurance premiums at some undetermined rate, which is offset by a 2 percent raise. In addition, another holiday was added, now at 14 days per year, which wasn’t mentioned when the vote was taken. Key provisions of the agreement set the standard for contracts with the rest of county employees.

Other government agencies have better kept up with our new economic reality. Fort Vancouver library offers 10 paid holidays annually. The library started employee contributions to medical premiums in 2004, and now at a rate of 7.5 percent for employees and 10 percent for family, $100 per month for a family.

State employees have contributed 12 percent to insurance premiums for years.

Both the county and the library offer 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! 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.

If commissioners won’t cut these labor costs during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, when will they?

Instead of employee contributions in 2011, the county will pick up a 5 percent health care premium increase for most employees, an average of $53.82 per employee per month. (Columbian 10-13-2010) The county employs 1,640 people. If each employee contributed just 10 percent to premium costs, the 5 percent increase would be covered, and save the county an additional $1 million or so per year.

In December 2009, Commissioners Stuart and Boldt voted to raise county taxes and cut public services. Now the commissioners have voted unanimously not to cut county benefits sufficiently, even though most taxpayers have endured cuts for years, at least those who still have a job.

Clark County has the highest unemployment in the state. Citizens should consider these actions when they decide who to hire for Clark County Commissioner on Nov. 2 with their vote.

Margaret Tweet is a Camas resident.

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