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Last week the Gaston County commissioners voted unanimously to give themselves and future commissioners health insurance benefits for life at the taxpayers’ expense after serving one term.  Gaston County is already struggling to pay the cost of health insurance for its full-time employees.  It spends about $10 million a year on health insurance, and that is expected to increase by 10 percent, or $1.2 million.

The county has been trying to cut back on expenses for some time.  A decision was made to not offer part-time county employees health coverage, and full time employees hired after 2005 will no longer be able to maintain county benefits after their employment ends, regardless of how long they work for the county.  It was also recently announced to current employees that if their spouses are eligible for benefits at their places of employment, they can no longer be on the county’s benefits policy.

Gaston is not the only county to cut back on employee benefits due to increasing costs.  Just last year Montgomery County decided to drop county employees’ health benefits completely because of rising costs, and McDowell County decided not to offer new employees insurance because the policies became too expensive to maintain.  Others, such as Onslow County, decided to raise taxes to meet the increasing cost of health care, and Robeson County reduced the work weeks for part-time employees and capped their hours to avoid higher health insurance costs.

So with all of these counties, and even their own, experiencing increasing health care costs, why did Gaston County decide to increase their liabilities by offering benefits to themselves and future commissioners for life?  The rationales used are ones commonly heard in government. 

Others are doing it, so we must do it too.  Many governments look to see what others are doing as validation for enacting policy.  States look to other states before changing their laws or tax structures, and counties do the same.  Gaston County’s human resources director polled other counties and found that nine others offer some health insurance benefits for their elected officials after they leave office, so Gaston assumed it was ok to follow suit. The problem with this mentality is that if one government decides to enact bad policy, others should not do the same.  Two, three, or nine wrongs do not make a right.

Another argument for the decision was that commissioners are not paid the same as other county employees, so they need the benefit to make up the difference.  The fact is that if the county commissioners feel that they are being underpaid, they have the option of voting themselves a salary increase.  This would be a much more transparent option for taxpayers and budgeting.  But of course it would only last as long as the commissioner’s term, would not be a tax free benefit as health insurance would be, and would not go up every year at the rate of health care inflation.

Thankfully, the citizens of Gaston County voiced their strong opposition to the commissioners’ decision, and the commission has decided to partly reverse it.  The change proposed would allow the commissioners to purchase health insurance at their own cost through the county.  But, to be fair, other part-time employees are not given this choice.  It is not clear why commissioners should be given special treatment in this regard.  If they need health insurance, they should either get it through their regular employers or sign up on the exchange like every other citizen of the county.

Sometimes elected officials need a reminder of exactly whom they are serving and why they are elected.  Regardless of party affiliation, public servants are elected to serve the public, and should do so with no intention of receiving a special benefit.

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