It's impossible to pick a side, or say who "won" in Tuesday's Columbus Council vote on city employee health coverage, so relatively insignificant is the difference.
As reported by staff writer Mike Owen, council voted 6-3 against a plan put forth by Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and the city's executive branch, then voted -- by the same margin, with only two councilors changing alignments -- for a plan all but indistinguishable from the one they had just rejected. (Former Muscogee County Schools Superintendent Susan Andrews would no doubt follow that sequence of events with a certain rueful humor.)
One thing the mayor, the council and City Manager Isaiah Hugley all agree on, because it's impossible to deny, is that the problem of funding city employee health care isn't going away.
If anything, it will just get harder: The city health insurance deficit tops $2 million now, and will probably hit $3 million by the end of the fiscal year this summer. That trend is obviously unsustainable: "At some point, something's got to give," Hugley said. "It's not going away, and we're not covering it. It's got to come from somewhere, and we're got to figure out where it comes from." Councilor Glenn Davis echoed Hugley's assessment: "We're probably going to be back at this again next year."
Let's hope so, because there are fundamental civic issues, as well as the obvious financial ones, that need to be debated here. Councilor Skip Henderson quite rightly alluded to the city's responsibility to the taxpayers who fund it.
Balanced against that -- or maybe just another facet of the same issue -- is the question of what Columbus owes the employees who keep the city running. What is ultimately in the best interest of the taxpayers? A baseline city health plan that saves money up front but is ultimately non-competitive in terms of recruiting and retaining good people on the payroll? Or more comprehensive, but also more expensive, coverage that both the city and the workers themselves would struggle to pay for, provided they could afford it at all? Some reasonable balance between the two?
For now, the city has basically opted for the status quo, with a few mostly moderate hikes in premiums, deductibles and copays to cover some -- emphasis on some -- of the rising costs of health insurance.
But the status won't stay quo for very long. Davis is right: City officials will be right back at this next year. And the decisions won't be any easier.