Board needs to tackle scandal
We attended the Douglas County Board of Commissioners Lake meeting October 19. In addition to objecting to the use of taxpayer money to cover impending increases in county employee healthcare costs, we also came to express our concern about the large theft of taxpayer money known as tire-gate.
The BOCC, ostensibly acting in the best interests of Douglas County voters, approved very generous county employee pay increases in June, including unprecedented five and seven year union contracts. Recently it was learned that employee health insurance costs were going up. Rather than just accept these increases, as you private sector taxpayers must do, the union heads collaborated with the ever-pliant BOCC to get a do-over for their just-negotiated compensation packages.
Three of our five Commissioners in effect re-opened the June contracts and paid out more than a quarter of a million of your dollars to cover employee health care cost increases. This vote rescued the employee unions from their failure to negotiate a health coverage contingency in June. The free-spenders’ creative rationalizations included, for example, that since the bailout money could be said to come from personnel-related “savings,” it really wasn’t your money.
Commissioner Thaler posited that using taxpayer dollars to cover health care increases would help prevent Douglas County from losing talent to higher paying state or local government employers. By that logic, Douglas should simply pay more than the highest paying agencies in the state.
Commissioner Penzel told the chamber that the impact of health coverage increases hitting well-paid union employees reminded him of sad times when he commanded junior enlisted Army soldiers who had to go on food stamps to get by. He also thought it was unfair that elected officials like himself have better benefits than rank and file county employees. These false equivalencies apparently opened his heart to the cheap grace of reaching into the pockets of the anonymous taxpayers, who have no special friends in county government, to help out the folks he sees at work every day.
The Commissioners should get out and talk to the service, retail, and casino workers they represent. They should ask these constituents if they know what a COLA is. We can tell you that these workers mostly get “merit” pay hikes if they make supervisor, and they enjoy none of the job protections found in government employment. Social Security recipients get COLAs, then hand the money back as Medicare premium increases. No one rushes to give any of these low paid folks government cash when their health care costs go up.
As to the vote, we all knew the fix was in even before the BOCC’s “deliberations”. The usually avuncular Michael Avila, president of the Douglas County Employees Association, even felt comfortable before the vote chiding one of the no-vote Commissioners over some past imagined non-verbal offense. His inappropriate snark drew no comment from the Chair. The unions kept their very generous wages and contract terms they won in June, plus they got the BOCC to sweeten their already rich compensation contracts with more of your money.
The dollar amount in this case isn’t so great, but this action was so obviously wrong it needed to be called out. For the record, we are not anti-public employee; we’re very much against public employee unions that exist to separate the taxpayers from their money. By the way, non-represented county employees get the same deal as those in the unions. Please thank Commissioners Dave Nelson and Larry Walsh for voting no. These two Commissioners know they were elected by you, the voters, to represent your interests.
Jan’s remarks verbatim at the meeting, regarding tire-gate: “It is stunning that the BOCC and County Manager has allowed this type of environment to be fostered in the Road Maintenance Department and under the nose of at least one Commissioner who is on the Regional Transportation Commission and I might add, she has [served] for a number of years. Has this environment permeated throughout the County?”
“Equally as stunning was the announcement of Carl Ruschmeyer’s retirement, head of Public Works Department, on a Wednesday, effective two days later AND eligible for full benefits. Interestingly, Public Works has authority over the Road Maintenance Department, the source of the tire scandal.”
Our Commissioners, with one exception, have been remarkably uncurious about how the county CFO, who was a senior member of the accounting department, missed so many jolting irregularities in the public works department’s finances for so many years. These same Commissioners also failed to object when County Manager Larry Werner allowed department head Carl Ruschmeyer to retire abruptly, eligible for full benefits, after tire-gate went public, especially given that he was the lead suspect’s boss. This could deny critical leverage investigators would have had to compel Ruschmeyer to tell what he knows.
Our Commissioners, so eager to insert themselves inappropriately in the county’s personnel matters, seem reluctant to take on a scandal with a potentially huge impact on their constituents. Let’s hope they get their priorities straightened out. Soon.
Jan and Lynn Muzzy are north Valley residents.