Commissioner Eric Buckson's proposed ordinances would increase employee pension contributions and alter pension payouts for new hires.
Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Eric Buckson has reintroduced two cost-saving ordinances related to employee benefits that have been shot down twice by the panel in the last six months.
Buckson said he got the go-ahead from Levy Court President P. Brooks Banta to again bring forward the proposed changes to the county’s pension rules, which, if adopted, would apply to newly-hired employees only.
The first measure would increase the amount deducted from an employee’s pay and put it into the county’s pension fund. The other proposed change would reduce slightly the multiplier used to calculate the percentage of salary an employee would receive in pension checks after retirement.
Buckson’s proposed ordinances are scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday, Dec. 21; Levy Court will vote on the measures at its business meeting a week later.
Currently, the county's 290 employees contribute 1% of thier pay to the pension fund, following a change that took effect last year. Before then, county employees contributed nothing from thier paychecks toward their pensions, said County Administrator Mike Petit de Mange.
Under Buckson’s plan, the contribution would be raised to 3% of an employee’s pay.
He said the proposal reflects a need to focus on saving taxpayer money and reducing spending.
“Obviously our government, like all governments, is experiencing a downturn in revenue and an increase in expenses,” he said. “You have to identify what expenses maybe can be adjusted, maybe are out of touch with what other government agencies as well as the private sector are doing right now.”
Buckson said Kent County’s employee benefits are much more generous than the state and the vast majority of Delaware municipalities, let alone private companies.
Several years ago, when the county’s salaries were on the low end compared to other jurisdictions, the sweeter benefits balanced things out. But, now that Levy Court offers more competitive pay, the benefits should be scaled back, Buckson said.
And, Buckson added, Levy Court will have to start cracking into personnel costs, which make up 75% of the county budget, if it wants to avoid property tax increases.
“Once you’ve cut all that you can cut there, you have no other option but to address the other side,” he said. “Regrettably, governments can rely on the fact that when push comes to shove they can create more revenue, they can raise taxes.”
Though these kinds of changes to the county’s retirement benefits policies will certainly save money in years to come, officials can’t put a dollar figure on it.
“Both of these ordinances are ordinances that will benefit the county in the longer term,” said Petit de Mange. “It’s hard to project because you don’t know exactly how many employees you’re going to have under this program and how soon.”
Currently, Petit de Mange added, the county doesn’t have any plans to hire additional workers, and there’s no way to predict which current positions will become vacant and be refilled, or when that turnover will occur.
Despite the lack of hard numbers, other Levy Court commissioners who voted against Buckson’s retirement ordinances have indicated they may be coming around.
Previously, Buckson’s only support came from Commissioner George W. “Jody” Sweeney, who voted with him on the measures in May.
But Banta, the Levy Court president, said he agreed to put the two proposals back on the agenda because they deserve more debate.
“I personally think that Levy Court needs to take a second look at these couple of items,” he said. “They will not affect current employees. We need a plan for the future and I think that’s what these ordinances will do.”
Commissioner Alan Angel also said the ordinances’ time may have come.
The county’s human resources department staunchly opposed the measures when they came up in the past, arguing that a benefits structure with different levels of compensation for those hired at different times would create “haves and have-nots,” as well as hinder the county’s ability to attract highly qualified job applicants.
Angel said those concerns are valid, and even though he may have warmed to the idea of changing the retirement policies, he’s not ready to look again at another of Buckson’s failed proposals: increasing the amount new hires pay for health insurance.
“If people today can’t pay their bills, they can’t pay their healthcare, we should offer them something,” he said.
But Buckson said he intends to raise the health care issue again in the future.
“We are asking only that new employees be impacted by these changes and we are asking that existing employees recognize that we’re in essence required to address these needs, we’re not wanting to address them,” he said. “It’s our responsibility.”
Email Doug Denison at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction appended: This story originally included incorrect information regarding current pension contribution obligations for county employees, as provided by a county official. The affected section has been updated.