County votes to raise employee benefits

Published on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 19:05 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

Smith County employees and elected officials received a benefits bump Tuesday after commissioners voted to increase the county match for retirement plans.

Court members voted 4-1 to approve raising the benefit match for retirement benefits to 1.25 to 1, county-to-employee match. The county reduced its retirement match rate to “dollar for dollar” from 2-1 during a difficult budget process in 2010.

County Judge Joel Baker said the increase, which was funded within the 2014 budget, would help the county retain good employees. He said the county is on strong financial footing and it was time to provide added incentive to current and prospective employees.

“We’ve clearly lost employees to other counties, state agencies and cities (because they can get better benefits) after we’ve trained them,” he said. “It helps with turnover rates to have competitive employee benefits.”

Commissioner Terry Phillips, the lone dissenting member, said he still has concerns about how the national and state economies could impact the county long-term. He said the county provided benefits better than many private employers and that there are no shortages of applicants seeking county jobs. He recommended court members stay the course.

“I don’t know if we’re out of the dark yet (financially) and should continue steady-as-we-go,” he said.

Phillips said the increase adds $1 million in actuarial liability for the county retirement, which may not be a cost now, but it will be a cost eventually. The county’s retirement liability, which is doled out as employees retire, would rise to $90.2 million from $89.2 million.

County Auditor Ann Wilson told court members the county would not pay retirement benefits “dollar for dollar.” Proceeds from investments handled by the Texas County and District Retirement System account for around 77 cents per dollar of the match, she said.

Commissioner Jeff Warr said the increase “strikes a balance” between improving the county’s ability to retain good employees and being fiscally responsible. The Texas County and District Retirement System website showed nine counties of similar size to Smith County, including Bell, Brazos, Ellis, Galveston, Hays, Jefferson, Lubbock, McLennan and Webb counties, had benefit matches at or above 2-to-1. McLennan and Webb matched 250 percent, while Bell, Brazos and Hays matched 225 percent.

Warr said the county is financially stable enough to address some of the drastic decreases in benefits that were necessary in 2010. He said having competitive benefits is a major factor in recruiting and maintaining talented staff.

Phillips said he didn’t think it was the “right time” to raise the match. He said he doesn’t believe turnover rates, especially within employee groups outside law enforcement, cost the county much. Applications to join the county workforce remain steady, despite the reduction in benefits, he added.

“It affects my county retirement too but I just think we’re treading water in a lot of areas and I think (a 1-1 match) is a good benefit,” he said.