Council delays action on city's rising health care costs

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 3, 2013 

For the second time in as many months, Columbus Council on Tuesday night postponed making a decision on how the Consolidated Government and its employees will share the burden of rising health insurance costs.

Citing an estimated budget shortfall of $6.5 million for fiscal 2014 -- $2 million of which is from health insurance costs -- Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and City Manager Isaiah Hugley again pitched the plan that was delayed in early October. The proposal would have shared the increase by the same roughly 75 percent to 25 percent that is currently in place, and it would have gone a long way toward alleviating the $2 million insurance shortfall, Tomlinson said.

But during an hourlong discussion, as councilor after councilor announced their opposition, it became obvious the proposal was dead in the water.

In the end, councilors voted to delay a vote on the issue until February, and said they would like to hear from city employees in public forums in the interim. The vote to delay addressing the proposal was 7-2, with Councilors Judy Thomas, Glenn Davis, Bruce Huff, Red McDaniel, Evelyn Turner-Pugh, Mimi Woodson and Pops Barnes voting to delay and Councilors Skip Henderson and Mike Baker voting against. Councilor Gary Allen was absent.

McDaniel said the $2 million shortfall is only an estimate, and the city shouldn't make drastic decisions based on that.

"A lot of the city employees live paycheck-to-paycheck," McDaniel said. "I'm not going to put this burden on these employees based on an estimate."

Davis suggested the administration was "crying wolf," and he said, "I haven't seen the wolf yet. "And if we have to make some tough changes next year, I don't think (this proposal) is the answer."

Huff said he would not burden the city workers until city leadership had explored all of the alternatives.

"We need to exhaust all the possibilities, and I don't think we've done that yet," Huff said. "I can't support this because it's Christmas time, and I can't support it because I want to exhaust all possibilities."

Henderson, who is also chairman of the Budget Review Committee, said the numbers are more than just estimates, and delaying the decision would defeat the purpose because any savings realized would be too late to affect the fiscal 2014 shortfall.

"We're $1.3 million behind paying for (health care costs) right now. The only thing that we're projecting now is that over the next seven months, we're going to accrue another $700,000," Henderson said. "As it is, it wouldn't take effect until April. If we put it off 'til February, it will not have any impact at all on FY14."

Tomlinson said if council does not act to address the projected shortfall, the fiscal 2015 budget process will likely see dramatic budget cuts, which could mean layoffs.

"Nobody wants anybody to be laid off, but with a $6.5 million expected shortfall, there are only certain ways that ball bounces," Tomlinson said.

Earlier, councilors also voted to delay a decision on paying certain Public Safety employees "gap time," which Tomlinson has said would save the city about $1 million a year.

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