Sunday, December 18, 2011

Attorney Prepared to Brief Oconee County Commissioners on Enabling Legislation

To Tinker or Not

Oconee County Attorney Daniel Haygood has prepared a three-page “synthesis” of the county’s enabling legislation as a starting point for continued discussions Tuesday evening by the Board of Commissioners of changes in those documents.

Haygood boiled down legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly for the county since 1917. He broke his summary into 12 “sections” that establish a “board of commissioners of roads and revenues” for the county and specify how it operates.

The form of government in Georgia is established by legislation, not by the constitution, and Commissioner John Daniell is proposing that the BOC ask the legislature to make some modifications to the Oconee County legislation when the Assembly meets in January.

Haygood prepared the documents after he proposed to do that for the commissioners at their Nov. 29 meeting as a first step in considering any changes.

At that meeting, Daniell proposed three changes.

He wants the county to gain control over how salaries for all five of the commissioners are determined.

He also wants all five commissioners to vote on all issues.

And he wants to create a single piece of enabling legislation for the county, rather than the collection of documents that Haygood summarized.

But other commissioners were somewhat cool to the idea.

Commissioner Luke suggested it was only a first step.

The 1917 legislation, according to Haygood’s summary, still forms the basis for the operation of the county.

The most recent modification was in 2007, when the terms of the members of the Board of Commissioners were staggered.

In 1998, the General Assembly, at the request of the BOC, specified the duties of the chairperson and that the chairperson vote only to break ties. It also set compensation of the chairperson at 113 percent of the highest base salary payable to the four constitutional officers.

The 1998 legislation specified that each of the commissioners be paid 27 percent of that highest base pay for the constitutional officers.

That same legislative change said that the chairperson and each member “shall receive an additional amount of five percent of their respective salaries for each four-year term as a commissioner completed” and cost of living adjustments provided by the state to the constitutional officer whose salary is used as the base for computation.

The 1998 legislation states that all members of the BOC “shall also be entitled to participate in the county’s retirement program, health insurance coverage, life insurance coverage, and other benefits available to county employees, to be paid by the county.”

Separate legislation deals with the Board of Education, and Haygood did not summarize that. He also did not address the responsibilities of the officers defined in the constitution: the sheriff, superior court clerk, judge of Probate Court and tax commissioner.

Haygood sent me a copy of his document on Thursday in response to my request.

The four commissioners debated the power of the chairman in a series of meetings in 2009 and ultimately passed an ordinance changing the organizational chart for the county in August of that year.

Chairman Melvin Davis opposed the changes, saying they infringed on his rights as specified in the enabling legislation.

The changes Daniell is now proposing would uncouple the salaries and benefits of the five commissioners from those of the constitutional officers so that the commissioners could set them locally.

It also would either “allow” or “force” the chairman to vote. Which of those words is used depends on perspective.

Davis’ salary is $92,276 for the current fiscal year, which began on July 1. That salary was supposed to go to $96,670 on July 1, 2008, after Davis was re-elected, but he declined the increase because of the collapse in the economy and local tax revenues.

Margaret Hale, the longest-serving of the four commissioners, is being paid $18,709 this year. Both Chuck Horton and Jim Luke are being paid $17,859. John Daniell, the most recently elected commissioner, is being paid $17,008.

All four of the commissioners have taken voluntary 10 percent reductions in their salaries for the last two fiscal years.

Without the reduction, Daniell’s salary would be $20,998, and that represents the minimum base, since Daniell has served out only one two-year term and was elected last year to start a full four-year term, meaning he has not yet become eligible for the 5 percent increase over the base. No cost of living increases have been added during the last two years.

These figures were provided to me by county Finance Department Director Jeff Benko on Wednesday in response to questions I had asked him about compensation. He sent the document he prepared for me to the five commissioners on Wednesday as well.

It shows that Luke is the only one of the commissioners participating in the county’s health insurance program. The county is paying $9,023 for Luke and his wife, and Luke pays $3,080 as the employee contribution. Luke owns two local hardware stores.

Davis and Horton are retired from the University of Georgia and get health insurance from the university, Benko told me. Hale is an employee of the University of Georgia and Daniell is an employment of Boswell Oil. Benko said they get their health insurance from their employers.

Each of the five commissioners gets life insurance coverage from the county. Costs vary by age of the commissioner, and the total cost to the county for the current fiscal year is $677.

Each also gets long-term disability insurance from the county. This also varies by age. Total cost to the county is $1,083.

And each is part of the county’s pension plan, with costs varying by salary. The total cost to the county for this year is $13,097.

The total cost to the county for compensation to the four regular commissioners and the chairman is $187,591, according to Benko’s figures.

Benko noted in an email message he sent me with his figures that health insurance, life insurance, long-term disability and pension costs vary annually and that his figures for the current year are estimates.

He also noted that the salary figures he used in calculating total costs did not include the County’s portion of payroll taxes, which is 7.65 percent. That would add, as a percent of simple salary, another $12,524 to the total cost, bringing it to just more than $200,000.

Luke’s comments at the Nov. 29 meeting were most skeptical of the strategy being taken by Daniell with his limited approach to modification to the enabling legislation.

When I talked with Luke by telephone on Wednesday he said “what John is proposing, I look at as a Band-Aid.”

Luke said he preferred to establish a committee to study the current enabling legislation and propose changes.

That study should include how the government functions, including the powers of the chairperson, he said.

Luke said he was not proposing specific changes, but he wants to “let the public decide what changes need to be made to the legislation.”

Luke said he thinks the voters ultimately should decide in a referendum the form of government they want.

Luke told me he has communicated to Daniell his views on the issue.

At the meeting on the 29th, Haygood said he didn’t think it was necessary to go back to the public if the commission is simply making minor changes that clean up the existing legislation.

Most boards of commissioners, if they are making broader changes, do go to the voters for approval, he said.

In June of 2007, when Oconee County voters were asked to approve staggered terms for the members of the BOC, only 3,283 voters turned out, but 81.4 percent approved. The county had 17,688 registered voters at the beginning of that election year.

The Board of Commissioners will meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the courthouse. The discussion of enabling legislation is the 10th item on the agenda.


The full 18-minute video clip of the discussion on Nov. 29 of the proposed changes in the enabling legislation is below and at the Oconee County Observations Vimeo site.

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