County employee falls victim to budget cuts
One Emery County contract worker will not be returning to work in the new year. Allen Thorpe has worked for Emery County for 27 years just three and a third years short of a full retirement benefit at 30 years of employment.
Thorpe currently works as a part-time deputy county attorney. His job includes research for the county attorney's office as well as duties for the planning and zoning department. County Attorney David Blackwell became aware of the proposed cut from his department when he was sent an interoffice memorandum by the chairman of the Emery County Commission, Ira Hatch on Oct. 18.
The memo stated, "Due to budget constraints, the position of part-time deputy county attorney will be eliminated from your fiscal year 2006 budget. This should give you sufficient notice to take the necessary action."
Blackwell discussed the matter with Thorpe and sent him an official letter on Nov. 3 which included a copy of the memo from Commissioner Hatch and detailed notice of his position coming to an end on Dec. 31, 2005.
Blackwell began to explore some options to be of assistance to Thorpe. He checked with the retirement company to get a dollar figure on the cost of a buyout for the remaining three years of Thorpe's retirement. The amount required would be approximately $30,800. Blackwell reasoned that this buyout would save the county money and also be fair and equitable to Thorpe who has spent 27 years serving the county.
The matter came up in the county commission meeting on Dec. 6 under personnel items. Mary Huntington, personnel director said the county would have to adopt a policy concerning early retirement and buyouts.
Blackwell said that $63,000 is being cut from his county attorney budget. His employee, Allen Thorpe is not retiring but being let go. "A man works for the county for 27 years and just three years before his retirement you're telling him he's out."
It was pointed out that if a buyout occurred then several other employees, at least 18, could ask for the same buyout. Blackwell said any of these employees could voluntarily retire, but in this situation you're saying to someone, 'you're going.' It is an entirely different situation than someone wanting to go.
The reduction of Thorpe's position will save the county $200,000 in wages and benefits over the next three years and Blackwell said, "You can't come up with 30 grand to get him to his retirement?"
"There is a precedence being set that way," said Commissioner Drew Sitterud, "Allen could go buy his own retirement."
"Yea, if he has the money to do that," said Blackwell, "the precedence being set is letting people go just before retirement."
Commissioner Gary Kofford said the concern is the contract itself. The contract doesn't delve into it and the contract states either the employee or the employer can terminate the contract with 90 days notice.
The employees in the county attorney's office are contract employees. Blackwell said he inherited these contracts when he was elected county attorney and the contracts have changed little over the years.
The county attorney's office will have to absorb the work that Thorpe has been doing. Current employees will receive no added compensation for the increased duties.
Commissioner Kofford made a motion that the county buyout the retirement for Thorpe. Commissioner Hatch said the money is not there.
Blackwell said the county can obtain money and can reopen the budget.
Commissioner Hatch said the motion dies due to lack of a second.
Blackwell said, "That's disappointing."
Commissioner Hatch made a motion to not approve the action to buy out the remaining three years. Commissioner Sitterud seconded the motion. Commissioner Kofford voted to oppose the motion. Commissioner Hatch and Sitterud voted to approve the non-buyout and the motion passed with a 2-1 vote.
Blackwell said, "Merry Christmas, Allen.
Commissioner Kofford said in the budget process the county commissioners decided to downsize two positions. One in the road department where a position of an employee with over 30 years with the county is not being funded and the part-time deputy county attorney position is being eliminated. "Thorpe has been treated like a county employee over the years and the county has paid into his retirement fund. The county's budget was $9,300,000 in 1998 and it remains $9,300,000 in 2006. Hospitalization has risen approximately 14 percent each year. Costs have continually been going up. We are now paying more than double for the same work, with the contract employees because of the rising costs. We need to go down an employee, but this employee lacks three years and has been a 27 year county employee. Attorney Blackwell felt like it would be good to buy out the remaining three years so he could get a full retirement. I feel like we're not being fair with an employee. Alan is 58 and four years away from any social security benefits. Allen is a good and valued employee.
"The county falls under stricter guidelines and things are different now. We must come into compliance to make the county stable and adjustments must be made. In the past with the changing of commissioners sometimes people were hired and fired at will. Things have tightened down. The county can't do this any more.
"The county has the same budget, but hospitalization has doubled and wages have gone up. Services must be cut to stay in line with the budget. When a lot of these budgets and services were set up in the 80s the county had more money. We are not in that situation anymore. This is a tough situation. Emery County is the third highest county for property taxes. We cannot raise taxes. We need to raise more revenue but how do we do it? Revenues are also way down for traffic fines and justice court appearances.
"I tried to appeal to the other commissioners to make the right decision when offering to buyout the remaining three years for Allen's retirement. It was just the right thing to do, but, they looked at it from a practical standpoint. I can't fault them for that. But, I feel we've done this employee a great disservice," said Commissioner Kofford.
Blackwell said, "The county has never before just said to an employee, 'you're out,' we rely heavily on Allen for research. He is an expert at doing computer research. Without him we will suffer, we will have to do it ourselves. We will pick up the slack and I feel OK about that, but I think it's unfair what they've done to Allen and it sends a chill through the county. We are defined by what we do, not what we say. What the commissioners have done defines them and I don't like that definition. It's frustrating. I thought the buyout was a good idea. They could get rid of the position and still reduce the budget. After the commission meeting the other day, I had a department head who said he was under budget and offered the $20,000 he was saving in his department to help with the buyout. Other county employees think this is cruel and it could happen to them.
"You can't draw any of your retirement until you're 62.5 years old, so Allen's just out in the cold. It's disheartening, Emery County should be ashamed by this," said Blackwell.