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Employees seek help from county

Published May 21. 2010 05:00PM

Five Weatherwood employees want Carbon County's help.

During the monthly meeting of the county retirement board, two of the five 30-plus year employees at the nursing home in Weatherly, Jerome Grega and Joanne MacNeal, approached the board with a request to allow a handful of employees to have the special early retirement benefit mentioned in the county retirement fund provisions.

"We are here in regards to the Carbon County employees' retirement system's special early retirement provision for active members who have 30 years of service and are under the age of 55," MacNeal said, noting that a handful of Weatherwood employees meet the 30-year requirement, but not the age requirement, and will have no opportunity to work toward meeting that requirement. "It would be fair to us that we not be punished for our age. We have no opportunity to continue our service with Carbon County to reach age 55.

"We have given Carbon County a lot of years. At least give back to us in return what we have given you."

MacNeal, who is a 34-year employee at Weatherwood, and Grega, who is a 31-year employee, will soon not be active members of the Carbon County Retirement Fund due to the upcoming sale of the nursing home. The closing date between Carbon County and the prospective buyers, Guardian Elder Care of Brockway, is expected to take place on June 30.

Commissioner William O'Gurek, chairman, said that the board reviewed the letter the employees sent to the county in regards to retirement benefits.

"I found that the law provides that the early retirement provision may be adopted, but it also says that the benefit is for active members of the county's retirement fund," O'Gurek said. "That poses a problem because it doesn't say that the county or commissioners or retirement board can designate a particular group or exclude any other group."

O'Gurek noted that the provision means that the county would have to open up early retirement to all eligible employees throughout its county offices. Currently 96 employees meet the early retirement requirements.

He also said that prior to opening up a window for early retirements, the county would need to hold a 60-day election period to allow potential retirees the opportunity to determine whether they would want to take the option.

"Even if we would adopt a resolution today, we wouldn't be able to open up the window until mid-July and you wouldn't be county employees then," O'Gurek said.

Robert Crampsie, county controller and secretary of the retirement board, said that he talked with county solicitor Michael Ozalas in regards to the interpretation of the provision, which reflects O'Gurek's interpretation.

He added that before any county enters into this provision, they look at their liability and how much it would cost them over the next five years. The costs associated with early retirements would be spread out over the next five years and tallied into the county's annual retirement contribution (ARC). Carbon County's ARC for 2010 is $1.3 million.

Crampsie said that unless a loophole is found, the county is bound by law and cannot open up the provision to just a small number of employees.

"If there is a legal way for this to be done, we would do it," he said.

Commissioner Charles Getz asked if there is anything that the county can offer these employees to help them out because it is not their fault that Weatherwood is being sold.

He then said that the county will look into seeing if there is something that can be done.

The sale of Weatherwood became a reality on March 25, when the commissioners announced that Guardian Elder Care would be the company purchasing Weatherwood at a price of $11,050,000.

Early this year, Carbon County commissioners were forced to make the decision to sell the nursing home after a financial analysis was completed at the end of 2009. The analysis showed that the home, which is operating on a $3 million deficit, would continue to cost the county millions unless changes were made.

The commissioners have continually stressed that making the decision to sell Weatherwood was not one they wanted to make, but the county could not afford to continue to lose $8,200 a day at the facility.

In April, the county said it is committed to covering the employees' personal time earned while employed at Weatherwood that will be lost as a result of the sale.

In other retirement fund business, Crampsie reported that the fund's portfolio value as of April 30 was $60,629,559.

He said that Carbon County's retirement fund has not been over $60 million since May 2008.

Prior to that, the fund hit its all-time high of $65 million in May 2007 before taking a sharp nose dive to near $40 million in February 2009.

"We're bouncing back pretty well," Crampsie said. "But we've got a way to go."

In other business, the Carbon County commissioners received an update on the 2010 census in the county.

Currently, the return rate for the overall county is 69 percent, which is up from the 2000 census.

Residents who have not yet returned their census should expect a visit from a census worker, or they can call the census telephone questionnaire assistance line at 1-866-872-6868 for more information.

The census is used as a tool to help counties and municipalities secure federal monies over the next decade. The better the response, the more funding the area has the potential to receive.

One concerned citizen, Gene Duffy, asked why some of the questions were on the census because he feels they are an invasion of his privacy.

He stated that the only question he should need to answer is how many people are in his home.

Other residents also were present at the meeting and asked the commissioners about an ongoing issue, the constitution.

O'Gurek and Getz said they read most of their copy of the state constitution, which was given to them two weeks ago; and Commissioner Wayne Nothstein said he read all of it.

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