Curry County Commissioner Tom Huxley wrote in an email Tuesday he didn’t approve of the new contract forged with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) employees because the cost to the county is just too high.

“The citizens of Curry County simply cannot afford the exorbitant benefits provided to county officials and employees,” he wrote at the end of a two-page email to County Administrator Clark Schroeder and Attorney John Huttl. He asked to have the email included into the public record and posted on the county’s website.

The 17 SEIU employees — in the assessors, clerk, finance, building and planning and facilities maintenance departments — were asking for a 3 percent salary increase, cost-of-living adjustments and a $100 increase for their health insurance.

Three days before they were set to strike, the commissioners returned with an offer acceptable to them: a 2.13 percent cost-of-living increase and the $100 monthly contribution to the health plans, both retroactive to July 1.

Huxley maintains the county cannot remain on this fiscal path, which is much of the reason he opposed the union’s demands.

He outlined in his email revenue the county received this past fiscal year — $1.7 million — the costs of salaries and benefits and how that is expected to increase in fiscal year 2019-2020.

According to figures he took from budget documents, health insurance premiums currently total $1.6 million and represent 26 percent of the average county employee’s gross pay.

County contributions to the employee’s retirement plans, his figures show, cost the county $875,000, or 14 percent of the employees’ collective gross wages; Social Security costs $460,000, or 8 percent, and holidays, vacation and sick leave, of which each employees get 12 days apiece every year, each represent 5 percent of gross wages.

The total paid benefits as a percentage of gross wage is 63 percent.

And it will get far worse next year, Huxley warned.

Every two years, the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) rates are reviewed and employer contribution rates are established. About 700 municipalities participate in the system, Huxley said.

And the advisory rates for PERS are set to increase to 19 percent of gross wages in the next fiscal year, for a total benefit package representing 68 percent of those gross wages in Curry County.

Given the current fiscal year budget, Huxley noted, PERS contributions will increase to about $1.15 million, and PERS, Social Security and health insurance together will total $3.2 million.

“The only thing (in those two figures) that’s changing is PERS, and that’s a significant factor,” said said County Administrator Clark Schroeder. “I’ve heard (PERS is) an unsolvable issue. The people in Salem say people won’t want to pay off PERS with an income tax.”

And how would the county pay for such an increase?

“That’s a great question,” Schroeder said. “I don’t know.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .

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