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No COLA this year, but other salary increases still on table

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

It's nearly budget time again and Bandera County Commissioners are getting a leg up on their usual squeeze-a-penny-till-it-bleeds cost-cutting considerations for fiscal year 2012-2013.

On Thursday, June 28, they discussed proposed salaries and allowances for elected officials and well as a COLA (cost of living allowance) for elected officials and county employees to arrive at a general consensus.

"This year," Judge Richard Evans said, "the COLA would be 1.63 percent, plus an additional 1, 2 or 3 percent. Each percentage point increases the budget by $100,000."

The numbers were taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Vehemently opposed to giving anyone COLA this year, Precinct 3 Commissioner Richard Keese said, "I don't want to end up like Stockton, California."

Last Thursday, Stockton became the largest city in the history of the United States to declare bankruptcy.

According to reports, years of fiscal mismanagement and a decimated housing market left the profligate municipality unable to pay workers, pensioners and bondholders. The first hearing on the bankruptcy is set for Friday, July 6.

After noting that elected officials received no COLA last year, Precinct 4 Commissioner Doug King agreed with Keese.

Expressing concern about gas prices rising again and what the November General Election would bring, Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris recommended keeping the status quo regarding COLA for elected officials.

His motion was approved unanimously.

The Boys on the Bench then turned their attention to employee compensation. "We don't have any numbers regarding healthcare costs," Evans said, adding that provisions of "Obamacare" would now go forward since the Supreme Court had that morning upheld the act as constitutional. "We should have the healthcare numbers by the first meeting in July," Evans said, anticipating they would be a "pretty large amount."

He reiterated that the court was not voting on the budget, but rather simply arriving at a consensus. "This will allow us to plug numbers into the budgets as guides for workshops in July," he said. "Eighty percent of the county's budget is allocated for personnel."

If approved for employees, the 1.63 COLA increase would equate to a penny-plus on the ad valorem tax rate, according to Evans.

County resident Fidel Ramirez asked the judge to explain the value of county employees' fringe benefits.
Evans said healthcare costs $5,000 to $6,000 annually per employee; the county's contributions to Federal Insurances Contributions Act (FICA), which funds Social Security and Medicare, has increased; and retirement is a 2-1 match, with the county's portion being two dollars for every dollar contributed by the employee. "There's no exact answer on retirement benefits, but we're not like California," Evans said. "The county is well-funded and has made good investments."

"I'm for no COLAs for anyone," Keese said. "Times are tough."

Eliker said he had hoped to be able to support a cost of living increase this year, but in the end, agreed with Keese, saying, "These are uncertain times."

Concurring with his colleagues, King said this appeared to be a time to tighten belts.

"I'll go on record that if the median income in Bandera County is $24,000 a year, I want everyone to know that commissioners' salaries are $22,309 plus travel," Harris said, "and commissioners have a lot of responsibilities, but we knew that when we ran for these jobs." He said he would stay with the status quo until after the November election and everyone could "see which way the country goes."

Informally, commissioners agreed that while employees would not get a COLA increase this year, longevity and step increases were still on the table. "Those are automatic and the only way to do away with them is freeze them," Evans said.

In other business, for fiscal year 2012-2012, commissioners approved reducing the salary of County Attorney John Payne by $4,193 to $79,166 and reducing King's travel allowance by $2,400, as had been requested. They also approved increasing Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Lynn Holt's travel allowance by $1,800.

During the meeting on Thursday, July 12, block grants to nonprofit organizations and the road and bridge department budget will be on the table.