Upshur Employees Concerned About Jobs, Benefits
By PHILLIP WILLIAMS
GILMER -- An often-heated town-hall meeting called by Upshur County Precinct 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner to receive public input on the county budget drew more than 115 people Thursday night, including several who expressed support for raising taxes and support for county employees.
Hefner, who is not up for election this year, told the standing-room-only audience at the Disabled American Veterans headquarters that he called the gathering because he "just wanted to have a conversation with the citizens," and that elected officials "need to make sure we're representing a majority."
Many who spoke were county employees or spouses of county workers, and they were concerned about workers' jobs and benefits. While some speakers praised him for holding the meeting, Hefner came under fire from others.
Last year -- Hefner's first in office -- the Upshur County Commissioners Court pared its budget by $1 million from the prior fiscal year but still had an $800,000 shortfall "on paper," Hefner said. This year, he added, "I know this isn't popular ... but we're faced with some hard decisions here."
Fran Gardner, a deputy tax assessor/collector, cited rumors that "several county employees are gonna lose their job." She said county officials created the current financial problem by dropping the tax rate for several years.
"Taxes have got to be raised to get the county out of this hole," Mrs. Gardner argued.
But Hefner replied that people on the county payroll are the only ones who benefit from a tax increase. He also later said he had no specific personnel cuts in mind.
Sherry Jewkes-Larsen, a clerk in the Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace office, criticized Hefner for calling the forum without posting it as a meeting of the county commissioners court so all four county commissioners could legally attend.
"It appears like you're trying to keep the others out," she said.
Hefner replied there was nothing wrong with one official having a town meeting.
After one man said raising taxes would be "suicide for any political official" in the current economy, Hefner said the court had "cut everything we could find" in the current budget. He also said he was committed to a "true balanced budget" for 2012-13 without dipping into reserves and without "increasing taxes, if possible."
He said some were calling on him to "go out here to the people (taxpayers) who are paying these bills."
Michele Griffith, a clerk in the Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace office, said, "I pay those taxes like everybody else."
Chris McCurry, who along with his wife works for the sheriff's office, expressed concern that people will pay the same amount of taxes but get only half their current services if cuts were made.
"I'm standing here today, worrying about losing my job," said McCurry, noting he is a taxpayer. Mrs. Jewkes-Larson meantime said, "I have stayed (with the county) because of my medical (benefits) and my retirement."
David Royer, a businessman, argued that county employees were underpaid and that "the benefits are the only thing they have to fall back on."
He called for economic development, saying the county can't keep raising the tax rate.
Hefner said he didn't like that county workers have had no pay raise (other than small longevity raises) in six years, and that he was trying to build a foundation for "merit" raises rather than across-the-board increases.
Donna Whitaker, a deputy in the Tax Assessor/Collector's Office, proposed raising taxes. She said county commissioners for years set a tax rate lower than the "effective" tax rate, the rate needed to bring in the same amount of revenue as raised the prior year.
She said they did so "to save their political tails."
Hefner said he would consider setting the tax rate at the effective rate.
"We only make about $24,000 a year," Ms. Whitaker said. "That's poverty. Our retirement, our insurance, are why we're here."
Sherry Neal, who is over the sheriff's office 911 system, said she had never seen the county in such "bad shape" and that some deputy sheriffs are working two or three jobs. "You, mister, are not fair," she told Hefner.
Precinct 2 Constable Jason Weeks told Hefner he is "making promises you cannot possibly keep" by saying he would not raise taxes when costs have risen, and some county workers' salaries are lower than fixed incomes.
"You're not gonna fix this by cutting these jobs. You may have to raise taxes," Weeks said.
Brandy Davis, a deputy tax assessor/collector, asked why 200 county workers had to bear the burden for the 40,000 county residents. When Hefner replied that the citizenry was in the "same boat" as county workers financially, Ms. Davis replied, "Become a Wal-Mart greeter. Get a second job like we do."
After the gathering, Hefner said he was pleased with the results of the meeting.
"We as elected officials work for these people and we need to be more open with them, let them express their concerns," he said.