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County should have kept faith with retirees

Lincoln County’s government is right to look for ways to save taxpayers money. Faced with sudden shortfalls due to unexpected drops in sales tax revenues as the nation’s economy went haywire during the 2008-2009 fiscal year, commissioners and county staff had little choice but to cut.
Even so, they erred seriously in breaking faith with retired county employees, probably costing the county more money in the long run.
The settlement announced last week will go a long way toward fixing that mistake and should put an end to an expensive and unpleasant legal battle. But it should never have gotten to this point. It’s especially a shame that the county didn’t back down until after a judge’s initial ruling showed the county was on shaky legal as well as ethical ground.
When the cash-strapped county changed its health care plan from 90 percent coverage to 80 percent, retirees who believed they had been promised coverage under the original scheme until they were old enough for Medicare understandably cried foul. When the county passed the cuts for them as well as current employees anyway, a number of retirees went to court.
The case pitted the county against some of its most loyal, hardworking and long-suffering employees — including no less than three former chief deputies, men who put their lives on the line to protect Lincoln County citizens. It was unsightly and made the county look stingy. Aside from appearances, it boiled down to the county going back on promises that had been made earlier. Maybe those promises were made by people who aren’t in office any more, but that isn’t the way county government works. Policies come and go, but a promise is still a promise.
County Manager George Wood correctly told the press last week that the situation had been complicated. As he noted, the county couldn’t very well have carried two different health plans. However, the settlement the county reached will ensure that all eligible retirees are appropriately compensated. Such an arrangement should have been offered at the outset and not as the result of legal wrangling, tying up the courts and paying lawyers on the county taxpayers’ dime.
While the parties should be applauded for bringing this episode to an acceptable conclusion, let’s hope our county leaders learn from the experience. Keeping faith with the county’s former employees is always the right choice.

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