City council: Taxpayers to bear increases in benefits

  • Wednesday, June 4, 2014

After a heated Georgetown City Council meeting filled with shouting matches and finger pointing, city employees will not shoulder the costs of a $372,397 increase in their health insurance premiums in 2014-2015.

A bitterly divided Georgetown City Council on Friday defeated a move by Councilwoman Carol Jayroe to force city employees to absorb all of the 24 percent premium increase.

The health insurance issue was the major issue in the city council's consideration of preliminary approval of a $36.5 million 2014-2015 budget, which the council adopted on a 5-2 vote – with the same majority also voting to shield city employees from the health insurance premium increase.

By a narrower margin, 4-3, the council also voted to maintain city financial support for the health insurance coverage of council members' spouses and children.

The tension in the council chambers was evident even before the insurance issue was addressed.

After hearing from department heads about their budgets, the council adjourned to an executive session.

Emerging from the closed meeting, council members were visibly tense, and the “elephant in the room” – the health insurance issue – entered the center ring.

With just the mere mention of employees contributing to the increase in premiums, Councilman Clarence Smalls threatened to leave the table. “I'm going to have to be excused, because I am not going to sit in there (referring to the executive session) and talk about big money, and then come out here and talk about this,” he said. Smalls stayed at the meeting, which quickly heated up, with Councilmen Rudolph Bradley and Ed Kimbrough engaging in a fierce battle of words, with Bradley arguing for the city to absorb the premium increase and Kimbrough arguing against that.

At one point, Bradley said to Kimbrough, “You are out of your mind.” Mayor Jack Scoville several times had to intervene, saying “point of order, point of order” and pounding his gavel to defuse the debate.

After the dust settled, the council voted 5-2 against Councilwoman Jayroe's motion to require city employees to pay all the costs of the premium increase, with Kimbrough the lone council member voting with Jayroe.

Council members Bradley, Smalls, Brendon Barber and Peggy Wayne voted to require the city to absorb the Blue Cross Blue Shield health plan premium increase.

In another motion by Jayroe, Scoville joined Kimbrough in voting to eliminate city support of health insurance benefits for council members' dependents, but that motion was defeated by Bradley, Barber, Smalls and Wayne.

As a result, the city will pay $2,982 per month to provide health insurance for five council members and their families in 2014-2015. Scoville and Kimbrough are not covered under the city plan.

Jayroe is covered, and offered to pay for her husband's insurance. “Ya'll, I can not vote for this, this is not right,” a clearly upset Jayroe said, referring to the city's subsidy of dependents' benefits.

Passions were highest, though, when council members debated who should pay for the overall premium increase.

“I can't vote on a budget that doesn't have the employees sharing on some level toward the cost of this (premium) increase,” an emphatic and agitated Kimbrough said, after being told by Finance Director Debra Bivens that it had been three to four years since city employees had an increase in their premiums.

“For us to take the full hit on this, I don't see that happening.” Kimbrough said that is not in keeping with national trends, in which employees are being called upon to share more of benefit costs.

But Councilman Barber pointed to an employee earning $21,000 per year, and “trying to maintain health benefits and a family. It's a hardship … Sometimes effective leadership have to think about the human part of employment, instead of just the financial.” Barber also said, “Employees have been working hard, but haven't gotten a dime in raises for years.”

Councilwoman Jayroe countered sharply, “I always fight for the employees, but I also fight for the other 9,000 citizens in this community.”

She said she has received more than 25 phone calls from citizens since the last council meeting, and has been approached by citizens around town, complaining, “What are you all doing? We cannot afford to pay $400,000 more for health insurance.”

Jayroe said a nationally recognized firm had recommended that the city join the state health plan to save the city and taxpayers “so much money” on its insurance costs. The council last month reversed a decision to join the state plan, despite that recommendation. “I will not vote on a budget without the employees taking the increase,” Jayroe said. She also said the council should set an example by ending the practice of the city paying for spouse and family health insurance benefits.

“I will be happy to either pay my health insurance with the city, or at least drop my spouse … That's a lot of money we're paying for city council members.”

Councilman Bradley said, “The thing that is so sad is that we're going to put a dollar above a human being.” He said the disgruntled citizens Jayroe referred to will be complaining more when service deteriorates because of demoralized employees.

After Kimbrough stressed that the increases in employer contributions are being done everywhere, Bradley said, “I'm not concerned with everywhere. I'm here. Georgetown is idiosyncratic. This is not America … What are our workers worth to us?”

The city administration gave the council an option of sharing the premium increase cost between the city and employees, with the city paying 18 percent and employees 6 percent.

None of the council members embraced that proposal, instead choosing to vote on whether the city or employees should absorb all the premium costs.

In the preliminary budget approved by the council by the 5-2 vote, the $372,397 health insurance premium increase is being funded with $256,826 from the general fund; $38,524 from the electric fund; $21,402 from the water fund; $23,542 from the wastewater fund; $19, 262 from the storm water fund; and $12,841 from the waste management fund.

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