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The Observer Paper 12/22/14

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By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Despite criticism from Union County residents, the county commissioners let stand a policy that allows certain retirees continued funding for health insurance benefits.

Another controversial policy, awarding frequent flier miles earned during county travel by employees for their personal use, was overturned Wednesday by the commissioners.

At the Dec. 4 meeting, the commissioners passed, without discussion, a policy that will pay $400 a month toward the cost of health insurance to elected officials who retire after a minimum of 16 years of service. The policy applies only to elected officials who are covered under the county's insurance plan and the benefits continue for a maximum of four years, depending upon the length of service.

Two people spoke against the policy during Wednesday's public comment period. Lee Flower and Phil Hassinger both said the La Grande School District does not have such a policy and they said the county was spending money unnecessarily at a time when programs are being cut.

"The whole state is dripping in red ink," Flower said. "I don't see how this can be implemented."

Two elected officials, Assessor Patty Gooderham and Clerk Nellie Bogue Hibbert, asked that the commissioners not drop the policy. The terms of both will expire in 2004, at which time they will each have at least 16 years service.

According to Union County administrative officer Marlene Perkins, the three officials will be eligible for the health care policy when they retire.

Gooderham told the commissioners that, unlike hired county staff, elected officials do not accrue vacation and sick leave that can be paid at the time of retirement, and when elected officials retire, there are no post-retirement benefits.

"I feel badly that the public has said, ‘We don't think you're worth all the time — at least four terms — that you serve,' " Gooderham said.

Bogue Hibbert agreed. "I'd recommend a policy that recognizes service," she said. "This is a bargain. You could have elected officials on a 40-hour clock and when the 40 hours ends, that's too bad (if the job isn't done). There should be a way to compensate."

Perkins said she estimates that the total cost of the health benefit will not exceed $40,000.

Commissioner John Howard, who was defeated by John Lamoreau in November, does not qualify for the benefit because he is not insured under the county.

County Commissioner Colleen MacLeod chastised The Observer for its coverage of the insurance and travel policies. "This hasn't been done without discussion," she said. "We've talked about it during department head meetings, and the press could have been there. They're open meetings."

Oregon public meetings law requires certain notifications and a public agenda of special meetings if county elected officials plan to discuss or vote on any county issue. No discussion of either the travel policy or the health benefits policy was held during an advertised, open public meeting of the commissioners until Wednesday.

Perkins argued that frequent flier miles could not be awarded for county business because those miles are given to each individual traveler. Several county officials, including Perkins, accumulate frequent flier miles when their trips are paid for by various professional associations such as a national or regional association of counties or the Oregon Association of Counties.

Commissioner Steve McClure proposed that the county rescind the travel policy.

In a companion travel issue, the commissioners voted to increase the reimbursement for lodging and meals to $60 a night for hotel rooms and $35 per day for three meals, with up to $20 allowed for dinner. The move reflects the state per diem of $35 per day for meals.


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