County presses Wall | SteamboatToday.com

County presses Wall

Commissioners could slash benefits for departments that don't accept cuts

Brandon Gee

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners is threatening to take away the health and retirement benefits of Sheriff’s Office employees if Sheriff Gary Wall doesn’t accept a 10 percent countywide pay reduction for his department.

Without the participation of the Sheriff’s Office – one of Routt County’s largest and best-paid departments – county commissioners say they may be forced to make layoffs they hope to avoid as they confront a $4.9 million deficit in their 2009 budget.

Commissioners will consider a resolution next week adopting a furlough plan for county employees that will reduce work hours 10 percent to match the pay cut adopted by Resolution 2009-019 on April 1. A provision of the resolution states that in the event any Routt County elected official refuses to accept the 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.”

Wall already has challenged the pay cuts in a letter from his attorney arguing that although the commissioners have the right to revise the adopted budget when revenues fall short of projections, they cannot unilaterally reduce the salaries of employees of elected officials without mutual agreement.

While the furlough resolution speaks to any elected official that may refuse the pay cuts, County Manager Tom Sullivan said Wednesday that Wall is the only one opposing them so far.

The draft resolution has only further emboldened Wall, who sent a letter Tuesday in hopes of rallying other Routt County elected officials to his side.

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In the letter, Wall asks other elected officials to join him in opposing the 10 percent pay cut. Wall argues that the draft furlough plan resolution “is clearly an attempt to intimidate us into agreeing with Resolution 2009-019, under the threat of our employees being denied their retirement plan coverage and medical insurance coverage for them and their families, if we do not agree to this resolution.”

During a meeting with Sullivan on Wednesday to discuss the proposed furlough resolution, some county employees expressed concerns that they could be punished for the actions of elected officials.

“I would just hate to see helpless victims in the middle of a power struggle,” dispatcher Erika Rick said.

Sullivan’s response to concerns that employees would have no say was to tell the employees that they should talk to their elected department leaders.

“We’re looking for that sign-off from the elected officials,” Sullivan said. “They are responsible for their departments.”

Later Wednesday – in a meeting with the commissioners, Sullivan and Finance Director Dan Strnad to discuss cuts to his operational budget – Wall presented $30,000 in proposed cuts, about 3 percent of his operational budget, and announced he would not entertain attempts to cut his budget further.

“To reduce further would seriously reduce my ability to perform my statutory duty to provide public safety in Routt County,” Wall said.

Wall’s comments frustrated Commissioner Doug Monger, who said Wall is not trying to be “part of the solution.” Monger noted increases in the Sheriff’s Office budget, which has grown $1.5 million since 2004 to $4.6 million.

Other departments’ operational budgets reviewed Wednesday were cut by more than 10 percent.

“Most people are being realistic,” Monger said.

During a tour of the Routt County Jail earlier Wednesday, Wall and other Sheriff’s Office employees said they are already woefully understaffed and pointed to several potential liabilities such as inmates who work unsupervised in the kitchen and the fact that there is sometimes only one deputy for every 10 prisoners transported to the Routt County Justice Center for appearances before a judge. Part of the journey involves an elevator ride in a car that does not have a cage to separate deputies from prisoners.

Wall said the jail is a disaster waiting to happen if a fight breaks out or another emergency arises while the jail is understaffed.

The county’s hiring freeze and prohibition of overtime already have created a scheduling “nightmare,” Sgt. Mike Baumann said, let alone the potential impacts of a furlough program. Baumann said the jail needs at least one person in its control room and two more on the jail floor, at a minimum, to operate safely but has been forced to work with as little as two deputies total in recent weeks. He said an inmate who tried to strangle herself with a pair of socks was found nearly dead recently.

Baumann said the Sheriff’s Office could keep a better eye on inmates with adequate manpower.

“We don’t know when things are going to happen. Anything at any time can happen,” Dep. Rachel Rivas said. “I think there are times when (safety) does become questionable. It’s spread too thin.”

There was a similar struggle between a sheriff and county commissioners during budget discussions in Summit County last year. Summit County Sheriff John Minor said that while he and Wall differ substantially politically – Minor is a Republican and Wall is a Democrat – he is supportive of Wall’s current actions.

“Sheriff Wall and I may disagree on some things,” Minor said Monday. “I also think he’s doing the right thing challenging their authority. : He must be an advocate for (adequate public safety). That’s his job. : I think what he’s doing is courageous.”

Last year, Minor was asked to eliminate positions as part of budget cuts.

He refused and threatened to hire a lawyer and file an injunction against the Summit County Commissioners, but he said he would work with them on other cuts.

“You need good public safety,” Minor said.

“You don’t take this shared misery approach.”

Minor ultimately worked things out with his commissioners and avoided legal action.

Whether the same will be true in Routt County remains to be seen.

Wall said a decision about whether to move forward with formal legal action against the commissioners is “pending.”

– To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210 or e-mail bgee@steamboatpilot.com