Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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By threatening the health care benefits of county employees in a transparent attempt to gain political leverage against Sheriff Gary Wall, the Routt County Board of Commissioners is practicing gutter politics.
As readers of the Steamboat Pilot & Today know, there has long been a war between the commissioners and the sheriff. Unfortunately, during the latest skirmish the commissioners have sunk to an unimaginable low by using rank-and-file county employees as cannon fodder.
Commissioners blundered April 1 by enacting an ill-conceived, across-the-board 10 percent pay cut for all county employees, without a commensurate furlough plan reducing work hours. Commissioners now are in the process of trying to right that wrong by enacting furloughs via a resolution to be considered Tuesday. In the midst of this retreat from the April Fools' Day fiasco, Sheriff Wall lobbed a grenade into their foxhole by publicly challenging the commissioners' legal authority to unilaterally cut the pay of employees of departments overseen by other elected county officials, absent the officials' agreement.
Perhaps suffering from battle fatigue, the commissioners revealed how low they're willing to go to maintain their belief that they are entitled to totally dominate other elected county officials. The commissioners placed language in the furlough resolution stating that if any Routt County elected official does not accept the commissioners' already enacted pay cut, "the board reserves the right to exclude the employees working in that elected official's department from employment benefits : including : retirement plan coverage and medical insurance coverage."
The obvious strategy of the commissioners is: a) Scare county employees into believing that if they or their family becomes ill, they won't have medical insurance unless the elected official atop their department kowtows to the commissioners, and, b) Having incited fear, pressure employees to tell all elected officials - specifically Sheriff Wall - to acquiesce to the pay cuts.
That strategy is beneath the dignity of Routt County and should be stopped. Now.
On Tuesday, the commissioners will argue that absent the sheriff retroactively agreeing to the 10 percent cut, all county employees will face layoffs. That argument is untimely and specious.
The commissioners have not demonstrated that other programs and departments that do not impact public safety have been reduced as far as possible. By way of comparison, the Steamboat Springs City Council exempted police, fire and emergency medical workers below the administrative level from pay cuts and furloughs, recognizing that one-size-fits-all cuts may disproportionately impact public safety. Additionally, the commissioners have more than adequate reserve funds to maintain an already understaffed sheriff's department.
As an aside, it is sadly ironic that the very commissioners who happily vaulted $400,000 from their initial budget for the downtown courthouse renovation seem satisfied to have only two sheriff's deputies guarding the entire jail complex far more often than should be publicly acknowledged.
At the heart of the longstanding dispute between the sheriff and the commissioners is the fact that Wall has consistently attempted to exercise the independent authority of his office in order to provide law enforcement services to the county consistent with the philosophy he campaigned upon. The commissioners are arguably constrained by law from interfering in the daily management of Wall's department and can't micromanage the department's funds beyond the gross amount budgeted - with some exceptions. If the commissioners weren't restricted, they could unduly influence the department's role as an independent law enforcement agency headed by an independent elected official answerable to the citizens - not the commissioners.
Realistically, the potential for political tension between the commissioners and sheriff of every county in Colorado is baked into the legal structure that defines and separates the two political offices. The legal separation between the two serves as a mechanism to prevent either one from thwarting the function of the other.
That's as it should be.
But, it also is expected that the individuals elected to any office should act as adults and keep the politics above board.
For the commissioners to threaten county employees with the loss of medical insurance - given what health care means to all county employees and their families - opens a sad chapter in Routt County politics that should be closed immediately.
If not, Wall should move this dispute into court and out of the gutter where it currently resides.
To reach Rob Douglas, e-mail Rob.Douglas@Comcast.net