Employee Group Threatens Suit Against County

Controversy over a new budget in Smith County could spill over into the courts. Last week County Commissioners approved a preliminary budget that would cut medical benefits to county retirees, and force future retirees to find insurance somewhere else.

Some employees are now saying those cuts are against the law and they're threatening to sue if they're approved.

Shera Guillory is one of those who would be affected by the cuts. She has worked for Smith County for 20 years, but she can still remember the reason she started.

"The benefits were good, the salary was horrible, but the benefits were good."

Guillory became eligible for retirement from the County last year. She was planning to do so in January, now, those plans are on hold.

"I was literally filling out my papers to retire that morning before I went to Commissioners Court and heard all this."

What has Smith County employees so upset are the details of this current proposed budget, right now all retirees would lose health benefits within six months and all those currently working for the county would lose those benefits in the future."

Russell Buffington is the President of the Smith County Employees Association. He says by cutting benefits, the county is not only going back on it's promise, it's breaking the law.

"We believe that it's a contractual agreement between the county and it's employees or what boils down to something that would be similar."

The employees association has hired an attorney and says they'll sue if the current cuts go through.

"I never wanted the county to be sued over anything but this is such an important issue based on a promise made by the county if they force us to do that I don't see any other remedy," said Buffington.

Guillory says if that happens, it would be a disappointing end to two decades of hard work.

"You work lots of long hard hours, I mean we've been there until 1:30 am with jury trials.... It's like they use you up and spit you out."

County Judge Becky Dempsey refused to comment on the potential lawsuit. The Judge says the cuts in benefits are necessary to maintain the current tax rate. In 2003, records show Smith County had the 5th lowest rate out of 254 Texas counties.

Commissioners are set to approve a final budget next Thursday.

Chris Gibson, reporting