Collin County’s top elected official is not making any friends among county employees these days.
Commissioner’s Court Judge Keith Self has proposed cutting retirement and pension benefits. In interviews and his blog, Self says county employees are getting rich in retirement. Many get six-figure annual pensions, the type of benefits that befit a “privileged class,” he said.
Figures such as a fellow commissioner's court member to nearly every county department head have criticized Self's remarks.
Most county retirees earn a third or less or their salary in annual pension payments, critics say.
Sheriff Terry Box said his third-in-command, a major, recently retired. He earned nearly $105,000 in salary after 24 years on the job, but his pension is less than $34,000 a year, Box said.
Commissioner Joe Jaynes said Self is courting Tea Party voters with a message of lower taxes and uses blatantly misleading information to do so.
"Keith wants to run for Congress, and this isn't the first issue that he's exploited," he said. "He's not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story."
Self said his proposal doesn't have political motivations. He said job losses in the private sector across the county compels commissioners to take a hard look at where cuts can be made in the county budget.
"We've got to compare our public-sector total benefit package with our private-sector total benefit package,” he said.
Under Collin County’s pension plan, employees can contribute up to 7 percent of their salary. For every dollar employees contribute, the county matches at $2.50.
County employees say the idea that they get rich in retirement after working in jobs that pay less than most is ridiculous. Having the security of a government retirement and medical benefit system is the trade-off, they said.
Without it, the county will have trouble finding and retaining employees, said Sheriff's Deputy Cindy Eressnell.
“I don't think it's a good thing," she said. "I realize that the economy is down and cuts have to be made, but this is a draw that we have, an incentive if you will, to bring in officers.”
Box agrees, saying that the retirement and benefit packages are about the only leverage the county has, because the salaries are lower than those of identical jobs in the private sector or even in city governments.
He said he has gotten only four applicants for his two openings for deputy. But the city of Allen has more than 300 applicants for four openings for officers, Box said.
Box said he does not know why Self has made the pensions an issue.
“I don't know what his true intentions are," he said. "He's been explained several times what the true facts are … and he has not chosen to use those facts."
A packed house attended the first of three public hearings on the proposal Monday night.
"Is this the way that our government makes all its decisions? Without properly investigating and looking at every aspect of the issue?" county employee Todd Free said. "Because if it is, as a taxpayer in this county, that is unacceptable."
"We expect our local politicians and government employees to do what the taxpayers are having to do, and what your benefit program is, is unsustainable and it's not in the industry that's paying that for you," another person said at the hearing.
After rumors that Tea Party members would arrive at the hearing early, county employees held a meeting of their own in the central jury room of the Collin County courthouse. People who arrived early for the pension hearing were told they couldn't enter until it started at 6:30 p.m. because the room was being used for a meeting.
A final decision on Self's proposal is expected in two weeks.