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Opinions Differ In Policy Discussions

January 21, 2014
by Dan Voigt , Emmetsburg News

Discussions on a potential policy and a current policy presented the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors a gamut of opinions from county employees, elected officials and members of the public during the board's meeting Tuesday, Jan. 12.

For the past few months, the supervisors have discussed development of a county policy regarding cell phone reimbursement and use. During Tuesday's meeting, the topic drew the elected officials, along with several department heads and county employees along with several citizens to discuss the subject.

Supervisor Keith Wirtz opened the discussion by reiterating his belief that most everyone now owns a cellphone and that people have unlimited airtime for those phones. "I just don't feel that the county needs to be in the cell phone business."

Palo Alto County Attorney Lyssa Henderson asked the board what their basic intent was in the discussion whether or not to reimburse or to actually provide cell phones. "You legally cannot forbid an employee use of a cell phone to conduct business for the county. The Code allows for reimbursement of expenses incurred in the performance of their duties. To me, this would be something incumbent on the part of the department heads to keep tabs on."

County Auditor Carmen Moser noted that a year earlier, the sheriff's office was paying for 10 cellphones with county funds, but had cut that number to just three phones for a considerable savings from the county's $9.900 payments for cell phones last year.

"Our bills went from $6,480 down to $1,944 cutting from 10 phones to three," agreed Sheriff Lynn Schultes. "One phone is assigned to our investigator, and the other two are left in the office for the deputies on duty to take with them so that phone calls may be patched through to them on the road, rather than them having to drive back to Emmetsburg to take a call regarding a case."

"I also have a county-owned phone," Henderson told the board. "I pay for a majority of the monthly costs other than the data plan, which allows me to actually file documents on the spot if need be."

"I don't want to be the one to tell one person that 'you get a phone because your job is more important than someone else's," observed Board Chair Ed Noonan.

"I don't think you're doing that," Henderson said.

Other office holders noted they didn't use cellphones in the course of daily duties, but County Treasurer Mary Hilfiker observed she could see the validity of other offices having need for the phones.

Cylinder area resident Tilford Egland spoke up. "I think the sheriff's deputies have a lot of dangerous things they can run into, and I think they need to have them. The county attorney, county engineer, we want to be able to reach these people, so I can see them having phones."

Secondary Road Department foreman Mike Flaherty agreed. "I get $250 a year reimbursement for using my own phone. If you take away the reimbursement, that's fine. It's just a service you're providing, and you're paying very little for it."

Auditor Moser summed up the discussion succinctly. "Part of the problem is there was never a cellphone policy. I think there are employees that have to use them, and they need to see some type of reimbursement."

"You need to make a broad policy," Henderson said. "One where the Department heads would determine if the employees needed to use a phone. I don't feel you as a board can determine if my employees would need to use a cell phone."

Board Chair Noonan then brought up the county's current early retirement policy, adopted in 1990, that pays $600 per month for health care benefits for up to 36 months for employees with over 15 years continuous employment with the county when they reach the age of 62 until they qualify for other coverage.

At issue was the cost of the policy, and the future expense to the county.

"You want to take this away from those that have earned it," stated County Recorder Bonnie Whitney.

"Every county I talk to doesn't do this, and some of them laugh at me," stated Supervisor Linus Solberg. "If people couldn't get insurance, they could buy it from the county."

It was pointed out that the original policy was intended to provide a means of insurance for retirees. But, with the advent of Obamacare, insurance is now available for all.

"I don't know if the federal government could tell you if that would work for a retiree," Henderson said.

"The policy says that on one hired after 2005 can qualify for this," noted Hilfiker. "I have a problem with jerking something away from an employee who has worked the years and has been counting on this plan for their retirement. "

"This policy as it is was terribly written," Noonan said. "Two people could read it and give you two different interpretations. No one in this county would walk out because of this policy."

"I don't agree," Whitney replied.

"I don't think so," added Hilfiker as murmurs filled the room.

"Your guys job is to do what you're doing," observed Dean Gunderson of Cylinder. "You need to look at these things. I commend you for looking at things like this."

"You have a cutoff date on this already," Flaherty said. "We've counted on this benefit all the years we've been out there working. I hope I qualify for it, because I've been here 39 years."

Moser closed out the conversation suggesting the formation of a committee of two supervisors, the county attorney and a couple of county employees to get the policy written correctly to protect the employees and the county. "You just can't cut these people off at the knees."



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