Angry debate in Goshen: Should county managers get free health coverage?

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:49

    Goshen — In one of the most contentious legislative debates in recent years, members of the Personnel and Compensation Committee considered several competing proposals for employee benefits. At issue is whether county personnel should contribute to their health benefit plans now, or whether the contributions should be asked only of new employees going forward. Three categories of employees had to be considered: Managers, elected officials, and union members. County Executive Ed Diana said that when it comes to union bargaining and managers hired by his division, “we should respect how these people were hired.” He said changes “should made going forward” with any new manager being required to contribute 10 percent starting in January. Newly elected officials will be expected to contribute starting January 2014, but every other elected office will be grandfathered in. Believing that hiring and managers’ benefits fall under his executive department, Diana went ahead and made the changes earlier in the day by executive order. Diana said the county has a triple AAA bond rating because of the excellent managers he’s hired. They made Orange one of the few counties that did not have a tax increase this year. 'A free ride’ But Mike Agnostakis (R-Newburgh, Montgomery, Maybrook), chair of the personnel committee, says it’s unconscionable that county employees are not contributing to their health benefits when some are already covered under other employment. None of the surrounding county employees “get a free ride,” he said. “I care about other counties, and I don’t ... because we are unlike them, and we are the best,” Diana said. Diana also said that promises made during hiring should be kept, and that when considering the entire county budget of $500 million — whether current employees contributed or not — would make a difference of only $36,000. “Would we be doing this for the county, or for political gain?” he asked. Agnostakis said it was the committee’s fiduciary responsibility to the public to start requiring contributions. He cited figures: 40 percent of private business is not even offering benefits, and if they are, an average 30 percent contribution is required. “Even the military pays,” he said. “Are we a privileged class? I would hope not.” While the average worker in Orange County is making $45,000 and paying $4,200 for their health benefits, “Orange County residents are having to pay for their own, and for ours.” Agnostakis says it’s the legislature’s duty, not the county executive’s, to set the benefits. He angrily responded to Diana’s facts and figures: “You can have your own opinions, but you can’t make up the facts.” Diana countered that the decisions about benefits are assigned to the county executive by the county’s charter, though he agreed that “for benefits for elected officials, you can do what you want.” As each legislative session ends, the legislature sets the salaries for the next incoming group. The attorney for the county, Dave Darwin, read the supporting portion in the charter and cited a Supreme Court decision backing up Diana’s position. With precedent an important factor, Legislator Tom Pahucki (D-New Hampton) seemed to sway the general opinion when he credited Diana with his good choices in employees. “You don’t see other counties giving 30- and 40-year pins like we do,” he said. Unusual show of support Pahucki cited a previous debate from 2000, when the county adopted a policy to make employee changes on a “going forward” basis. “I have been here 17 years, 5 months and 27 days, and I have never ever dealt with benefits and salaries,” he said. “We have always adopted the management plan, whatever it was.” In an unusual show of support for Diana, Pahucki added, “I’m not going to handcuff the CEO of this multi-million dollar corporation.” In the end, Agnostakis’ plans were tabled, with only Kevin Hines (R-Blooming Grove, Cornwall and Woodbury) continuing to back his proposal. “I’m sure there is a lawyer out there that would say the opposite side, but we will never get a definitive unless it goes to court, and I hope that doesn’t happen,” Hines said. “We have to change. Everyone else is paying. Most pay 25 to 30 percent if they’re lucky enough to get coverage at all.”