At a specially convened hearing at 6 p.m. Monday (Nov. 5), nearly 30 seconds of silence greeted Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors chair Roger Welch’s initial call for comments on the board’s consideration of a plan to reduce the county’s share of health-care benefit premiums for its employees.
Finally, Sharon Dodson, who works for Commissioner of Revenue Beverly Atkins, rose quietly. Reading from a printed statement, she started off what turned out to be an hour-long flood of respectful but clearly heartfelt pleas that the supervisors not be hasty with their decision.
“After five years,” Dodson said, “the county employees were given [this year] a 3-percent salary increase, which we are all very grateful for. If the county stops contributing to our dependent coverage, that will amount to $2,580 a year, and would decrease my salary by more than 6 percent. There are quite a few employees that this percentage of decrease would be considerably more. As you can see, the decrease is more than double what our increase was.
“It truly saddens me to have to stand here before you after working for the county for almost 33 years and having to beg to keep my benefits,” she continued. “I’m not quite sure why whenever there is a desire to cut the budget, it seems like the employees are always targeted.”
Dodson said many disagreed with some findings of the county’s Joint Benefits Study Group, convened by the supervisors and school board this summer to find a solution to rising health-care premium costs – as did several of those who followed, including Atkins herself, two sheriff’s deputies and the office’s second in command, a school teacher and a school administrator, a Circuit Court clerk employee and two school board members who said they were “speaking as citizens.” (There were two other school board members among the two dozen people in attendance Monday.)
“We have found,” as Dodson put it, “that our county insurance benefits are very much in line with three out of five of our surrounding counties. Those three counties do contribute toward family coverage and all of the plans and deductibles are very similar to ours. We have provided documentation to [County Administrator John McCarthy] and each board member, and would like to request that the board please refrain from changing our current benefits and continue to contribute to our dependent coverage, especially since we have no idea at this time what changes other counties will be making or what our premiums will be.”
County employees – who are paid directly by the county, unlike teachers and others who work for the Rappahannock County Public Schools – have yet to see changes to the way the county subsidizes health-care insurance benefits. School employees, meanwhile, have already seen such changes, in part as the school division scrambled back in May to deal with a $250,000-plus reduction in its requested budget by the supervisors.
“I think everyone here clearly understands that we’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Welch before the hour-long hearing ended (with nothing decided except that the board would take up the issue again next month). Responding to the many who said surrounding counties have higher salaries for public employees, Welch said: “What the other counties have is a multitude of businesses” which help pay for services.
At other sessions Monday afternoon and evening, the supervisors: approved a declaration to make the southern part of Route 729 a scenic byway; approved a new electronic-device use policy regarding board members’ iPads; and took a preliminary step toward revising the county’s solid waste management.
Stonewall-Hawthorne district supervisor Chris Parrish said he was approached by James Massie, who asked him to petition the board to extend the “scenic byway” designation currently in place on the part of Route 729 between Flint Hill and Ben Venue to include the southern part, which stretches into Culpeper.
Though there are no legal benefits to declaring a road a scenic byway, all scenic byways are included in a special map distributed by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) meant to inform tourists of more scenic roads. Furthermore, a conscious effort is made to preserve the scenic nature of the road whenever repairs are needed. Parrish pointed out that the road is already considered a Civil War byway – as evidenced by the many recent Civil War trail markers that adorn the sides of the roads.
Though the board agreed, 5-0, that the designation was the right thing to do, it is ultimately only a recommendation, as VDOT makes the final decision on scenic byways. That decision is still months away; in the interim, the board will likely hold a public hearing on the matter, though no date has been set.
At the behest of County Attorney Peter Luke, a new usage policy concerning the board members’ new iPads was instituted. The iPads, which debuted several months back, are taxpayer-paid devices, and as such, certain restrictions apply. Board members can use the devices for personal reasons – such as checking their email – but only insofar as that use comes at no additional cost to the taxpayers.
As such, any applications or the like which cost money cannot be downloaded or used on the devices, as that would cost the taxpayers more. The board unanimously approved the policy.
McCarthy then gave a quick report on the damage suffered locally during Hurricane Sandy.
No lives were lost in the county, he said, and while there was some significant property damage and almost two-thirds of the county was without power at some point, McCarthy said he felt it could have been much worse.
“Overall we definitely dodged a bullet,” McCarthy said.
In particular, McCarthy and Hampton district supervisor S. Bryant Lee praised the efforts of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC). Though some parts of the county were without power for four to five days after the storm, McCarthy said he was very pleased with REC’s effort and response.
“They really did a tremendous job,” he said. “They pulled people from as far away as Tennessee to make sure they had enough people to deal with the outages, and some of those people finished up here and started out to other areas. They worked very hard.”
McCarthy did point out that the power outage also disrupted cable and DSL throughout the area, and the county Emergency Operations Center was briefly disabled. He said the problem was addressed within 24 hours, and that Sprint was going to install a new backup battery on their main tower, which would last for a full 24 hours, as opposed to the current one which lasted only an hour.