A stream of top officials urged the Sarpy County Board not to remove their free health care premiums, a benefit they said compensates them for privileges they do not share with other county employees.
Sheriff Jeff Davis was joined by officials such as Mark Walters, who manages the county’s information systems, and Deputy County Assessor Jackie Morehead. Commissioners were told during a March 5 public hearing that free health care premiums gives the county an advantage when hiring employees.
“This is the reason that I took this position,” Morehead said. “I knew I would be getting this benefit. It’s a tough job being chief deputy. I wouldn’t have taken it if I had known. This is the one thing that I knew I would be getting extra.”
Walters, too, said he considered the benefit key when taking the county’s top technology job in 1996.
“I wasn’t thrilled with the salary,” he said. “But I figured in the 100 percent premium payment and felt it made the difference.”
The County Board voted 5-0 to remove its own eligibility for free health care premiums. But the elected body delayed until May 7 a discussion about whether the same should be done for other elected and appointed officials who run the county’s departments.
Commissioner Don Kelly told those officials that they cannot expect to be immune from the financial pressures being faced by taxpayers in the private sector.
“I know you work hard, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re not special,” he said. “You’re no more special than anyone else in this county. I don’t think it’s fair that the taxpayers have to pay so that we can have free benefits when the vast majority of our constituents don’t get that benefit themselves.”
Davis argued that he, like other officials who rose through the ranks, gave up important privileges when they entered the ranks of management. Among those, he said, were overtime pay, holiday pay and the accumulation of unused vacation and sick days, which other employees can cash in upon retirement.
“I didn’t whine then,” he said. “I’m not whining now, but when you are going to go forward with this policy it makes a huge difference for people like me.”
The only perk when he gave up those other benefits, Davis said, was the premium-free health insurance. He estimated the total value of benefits he surrendered since becoming sheriff in 2005 at $144,000.
“I find it hard to believe that you would want to reach into my wallet and take out 3,500 additional dollars,” he said.
Health care premiums at the county have been provided at taxpayer expense for county commissioners, elected officials and their chief deputies as well as some management-level appointed officials such as the county administrator.
Kelly, along with Commissioner Brenda Carlisle, campaigned last fall in favor of cutting benefits for county officials, arguing the officials’ compensation was excessive. Both defeated incumbents to win their first terms in office.
Commissioner Jim Warren also has been vocal in his opposition to continuing the benefits. Although neither Carlisle nor Warren had much to say about the issue March 5, their votes, combined with Kelly’s views, would appear to constitute a majority of the five-member board.
If the officials lose their free health care premiums, they would pay the same amount as other county employees. Those payments are $68 a month for single coverage and $283.45 for family coverage.
Kelly said the board was elected to make hard choices and needs to settle the issue.
“We can continue to kick this can down the road, but that’s not why we five folks are sitting up here,” he said. “People put us here to make the tough decisions.”