County employees balk at budget proposal
By LPR Staff
A fractured Commissioners’ Court and a frustrated employee base clashed during a special-called meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners’ Court on Thursday morning. Tempers flared, emotions ran high, and Commissioners fought to keep the peace as questions of employee morale and loyalty filled the air.
nt to apologize to the employees… and I want them to know that they are valued, and we do want them to stay here,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Neto Madrigal after fury sparked in the gallery when Judge Tom Bonn suggested that the employees were “free to work wherever you want, if you aren’t being paid enough.”
The meeting, a special-called meeting to discuss employee insurance programs and employee pay, was announced earlier this week, after a recent budget meeting revealed that increases to insurance premiums for employees’ dependents would counteract the $1,000 per employee raise being offered by the County in the coming budget year.
Some employees, according to information provided at that time by County Treasurer Lori Rangel-Pompa, would actually realize a significant decrease in pay, despite the $1,000 increment, because of the insurance increase.
Citing her own situation as an example, Rangel-Pompa said that her insurance premium, which covers herself and her child, would increase this year from $156 per month to $297 per month.
Under the current insurance enrollment, 37 of the county’s 220 employees participate in the “employee and child” insurance rate, as Rangel-Pompa does. Thirteen provide insurance coverage for spouses, which will increase from $244 per month to $526 per month, and two have coverage for spouse and children, and will see an increase from $378 to $827 per month.
More than a dozen employees present at the meeting raised their hands to indicate they do not currently provide insurance for their spouses or children, but would do so if they could afford to.
The County covers 100 percent of the insurance premium cost for employees, and offers a small stipend to subsidize coverage for dependents.
At least one employee present, a nine-year veteran of the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, asked the Court to consider adding the amount paid annually by the county for his insurance into his paycheck and allowing him to find coverage on his own.
The suggestion was a jab at Bonn, who earlier in the budget process revealed the budget reflects a 12.99 percent pay increase to $45,000 for the County Judge’s salary, but declined to take the county’s insurance, suggesting the amount saved on his insurance figured in to his pay increase.
Early in the meeting, Bonn said he understood many employees were in a precarious financial situation, and said he wished the county could do more to equalize pay rates, which in some cases are as much as 50 percent below the market average in this region. He did announce, however, that in a review of the budget, he had decided to alleviate the Court’s “contingency” fund, in some $120,000 and use that money to offer an additional across-the-board raise to county employees. He hoped, he said, that the Court offering the $1,500 pay increase would show the employees that he and the other Commissioners were trying to move in the “right direction” to address the disparity in employee pay that has plagued Caldwell County for years.
He then reminded the employees that if they were having difficulties making ends meet, that many were eligible for Federal assistance programs.
Some in the gallery were shocked to learn that several employees of the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office, who gathered to fill the Commissioners’ Courtroom to overflowing, were already accepting government assistance.
“Things weren’t always bad,” said Willie Clay, a transport officer who has been with the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department for four years. “When I first started here, my wife had a good job, and we did okay. Then, my wife got sick, and I had go to that office and I had to apply for food stamps.”
Clay described with tears in his voice the shame he felt when applying for government assistance and disclosing that he was an employee of the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office.
“I was embarrassed,” he said. “I was embarrassed that I had to go in there and apply for help. And I was embarrassed that I had to tell them that we pay our employees so little in Caldwell County that we need to get food stamps.”
Others, including Blake Lockett, the nine-year veteran who read a prepared statement and asked the Commissioners to think when they make decisions, not only about their own families, but about his, as well, also came forward to admit to receiving government assistance.
“Think, when you make these decisions, not only about just one or two people, but think about your employees, as well,” he said. “Think about my daughter, who I had to tell she can’t play soccer because I can’t afford it. Think about my other daughter, who I had to tell she can’t have dance lessons, because I can’t afford it. And think about me, every time I’m in the grocery store wishing I could pull out my bank card, and pulling out my food stamps card.”
The Caldwell County Commissioners’ Court will hold a public hearing and vote on the budget on Monday, Sept. 26, in their regular meeting scheduled to begin at 9 a.m.