Majority ask staff to look into eliminating benefit, state says there are obstacles
Union County will no longer pay for commissioners’ healthcare benefits, if several board members have their way. During their Monday, Feb. 7 meeting, County Commission Vice Chair Todd Johnson pushed to eliminate county healthcare funding for all sitting commissioners and their families, saying that as the county faces a projected $13.9 million deficit, cuts need to be made. Johnson’s motion, which was approved by a 3-2 vote, asked staff to investigate if the benefits could be cut and come back to the board’s March 7 meeting with an answer.
“People have lost work, they’ve lost retirement benefits, even our own staff has gone without increases and we need to find places we can cut, to lead by example,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to cut off the option, but I don’t think the county should be paying for it either.”
Under Johnson’s motion, commissioners would still have the ability to opt into the county’s health insurance plan, but they would be required to pay for it, instead of getting it free as they do now. Currently only one commissioner, Tracey Kuehler, is on the county’s health plan. The other four board members have declined the benefit. It costs the county an estimated $550 per month to cover commissioners’ health insurance and their families.
“I refused it and I think all commissioners should do the same,” commissioner Jonathan Thomas said. “We’re asking staff to cut budgets at an unprecedented level, that needs to impact us as well.”
The question remains however as to what exactly the county can cut. Commissioner Kim Rogers said that’s why she voted against the motion, explaining she didn’t want the staff wasting their time on something that couldn’t be done.
“I just don’t want to see them chasing their tails,” Rogers said. “I think we’re putting the cart before the horse.”
Board attorney Ligon Bundy wasn’t in attendance to offer a legal opinion, as the board had determined they wouldn’t need his services, to further save money.
The issue, according to University of North Carolina School of Government Public Law Professor Kara Millonzi, is that commissioners can’t amend their own compensation once a yearly budget is established.
“A board of county commissioners or municipal council may not amend it’s budget to increase or decrease board members’ compensation after the budget ordinance is adopted,” Millonzi wrote in a Dec. 2010 paper entitled “Altering Local Elected Officials Compensation During the Fiscal Year.”
As the healthcare benefits count as compensation, the only time they could potentially be altered, Millonzi argues, is during the budget process. In the paper, she also points to a 1976 letter written by the North Carolina Attorney General at the time, who also said commissioner benefits couldn’t be changed after a certain date.
“The compensation can only be fixed by publication in and adoption of the annual budget ordinance,” then Attorney General Rufus Edmisten wrote.
Even if commissioners wait until budget season to make the cuts, North Carolina law has a clause stating such a cut would have to be unanimous. North Carolina General Statute 153A-92 says that a county board of commissioners “may not reduce the salary, allowances, or other compensation paid to an officer elected by the people for the duties of his elective office if the reduction is to take effect during the term of office for which the incumbent officers has been elected, unless the officer agrees to the reduction.”
That means as the reduction in healthcare benefits would impact all five commissioners, all five commissioners, Millonzi argues, would have to approve the reduction. Otherwise, the benefit funding can’t be taken away during each sitting commissioner’s term.
Benefits, salaries next?
Johnson said if the motion has to be amended, then he has no problems with that.
“If the rules mandate we wait, then we wait,” Johnson said.
When asked, both Johnson and Thomas said they hadn’t considered cutting back from the salaries county commissioners receive, but that didn’t mean they were off limits.
“I think we’re at a place where all options need to be on the table,” Thomas said.
Other commissioners however questioned exactly what kind of sacrifice was being made, as most of the board didn’t even have the insurance.
“I find it interesting to call this a sacrifice,” commissioner Tracey Kuehler said. “This is nothing but pure politics. In order to sacrifice something, you have to take it first.”