As readers of the SCPR know, yours truly is impressed with the turnaround that Commissioners Bernabei and Creighton have brought to the Stark County commissioners' office with their coming on board in November, 2010 and January, 2011; respectively.
Compared to prior boards, this current board of commissioners is much more accessible, informative, communicative and transparent.
However, keep in mind that they have been under the gun to get a levy passed to avoid a county government financial catastrophe come 2012 and beyond.
With a prior board (Bosley, Harmon and Vignos) having imposed a 0.5% sales tax in December, 2008 (which a citizens group got repealed in November, 2009) and with the troubles in the Stark County treasury (revealed in April, 2009), the trust level in Stark County government was probably at an all time low. Consequently, Bernabei, Creighton and Ferguson knew they had a lot of repairing of the public trust to do before they could even think about putting a new levy on.
In a remarkably short period of time (less than a year), commissioners were able to restore enough trust to persuade Stark Countians to pass a 0.5% sales tax on this past November 8th.
If memory serves correctly (as to the date), yours truly asked the commissioners on the 9th whether or not Stark Countians could expect a continuation of:
- work sessions (which Bernabei and Creighton instituted) and the transparency they offer (Monday and Tuesday of each week),
- community meetings (21 from February through June of 2011) designed to promote dialogue (exchange of viewpoints) between the governed and the governors,
- open and accessible communication (e.g. Commissioner Creighton answers her own phone), and a
- drive towards greater efficiency and accountability in county employment.
Of course, words are one thing, but actions are another.
The Report is somewhat concerned that the commissioners may be losing their zeal for maintaining all of the positive changes they have brought to county government.
Admittedly, the evidence is thin that there may be some slippage occurring already so soon after the sales tax victory. However, the SCPR in bringing the matter up now is into the "a ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" mode.
On November 21st Stark County Benefits Coordinator Carol Hayn was brought into a Monday work session by commissioners to talk about the county's health insurance program (non-bargaining employees - 705 in number) and specifically to address the matter of how much employees should pay for insurance (Stark County is a self insurer except for catastrophic [in excess of $150,000 per claim] coverage) and what percentage of the premium the employees themselves should pay (currently at 10%).
The commissioners took in Hayn's information and recommendation (no increase in the total premium, but no recommendation on whether or not the 10% should be increased) and said they would decide the matter later.
It was not all that alarming that the commissioners did not discuss in public view their thoughts on that Monday. Perhaps they needed additional information, input, et cetera. However, it is not unusual for commissioners (especially Creighton) to give a first impression on the matter being considered.
What might be a cause for concern was that on Wednesday the 23rd (the regular commissioner meeting day) a motion was made to keep the percentage paid by affected county employees at 10 percent and passed without discussion and without comment as to the merits/demerits of raising the rate unless one thinks that the term of years that a rate is in place or a reference to the "unstable financial condition of the county" is such a discussion. The SCPR does not.
After the meeting, Commissioner Bernabei did address the questions of media present including yours truly. The Report's take on Bernabei's answers is that they were of a superficial variety and indicative, perhaps, that the commissioners did not consider seriously the possibility of requiring county employees to pay more.
Hayn had presented data on Monday that an increase to 16% would save county government some $217,000.
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently put out a report showing that in the private sector employees pay an average of 27% of their health insurance premiums.
But the commissioners did not discuss in public in much detail as to why there should not have been an increase for 2012. Bernabei did say (is sort of an after thought fashion) as justification for holding the rate at 10% that employees have not had a pay increase in several years.
The question the SCPR has is this: why didn't the commissioners discuss the matter in a public meeting and provide chapter and verse detail why Stark County employees should maintain their 17% advantage on their health insurance contribution rate over private sector employees?
Yours truly spoke with local attorney and civic activist Craig T. Conley (he led the effort to repeal the imposed sales tax of 2008) earlier this week and he says that he believes that the commissioners are on a track to forget past lessons learned (on the trust issue)and that within a year or so they will be asking Stark Countians for additional sales tax money without having changed/negotiated or encouraging other county departments of government to change/negotiate the formula of employee benefits (primarily pensions) and their contribution rates for health insurance/retirement plans.
The commissioners may have indepth reasons why they chose stay at the 10% rate but they chose not to share them with the Stark County public.
Could it be that they are in a mode of backsliding on the matter of transparency in county government?