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County Council, May 15

Attempt to address rising health insurance costs
Too harsh a change?

Warwick Jones

Over the last few weeks, Council has been mulling over the fiscal 2009 budget. The tail end of last night’s Finance Committee meeting was devoted to budget matters with the proposed changes to benefits for retirees generating the most discussion. At issue were the entitlements and benefits for retirees and their spouses as it related to medical insurance. Staff recommended to Council that the qualification for entitlement be tightened and the benefit period for surviving spouses be cut dramatically.

The situation at present is a follows. If an employee of the County retires after 5 years service, the County will pay 50% of his/her health insurance for ever. The surviving spouse will be entitled to receive the same subsidy indefinitely.

Staff proposed last night that a person be employed for 25 years to receive the 50% subsidy, and for 15 years to receive a 25% subsidy. But the change that shook some Council members was the limit of 1 year that a surviving spouse could continue to receive the subsidy.

Not as bad as it seemed
The latter provision looked very harsh and Council members Pryor and Darby were quick to question it. Council member Scott commented that the cost of health insurance was a national issue, not one confined to the County. The County was now moving to address the issue so as to not be overwhelmed in the future. He also said that the position was not as bad as it looked. The health insurance provided by the County was that offered by the State and was very attractive compared to private insurance. And also, most of the folk who were retiring were elderly and qualified, or would shortly qualify, for Medicare. So people were not being left out on a limb.

Change could precipitate early retirements
Council member Pryor, noting the change would become effective from the beginning of 2009 suggested that the proposed change could bring on a spate of early retirements leaving a hole in County staff. Staff also noted that the change would affect only future retirees. The present system of benefits would be preserved for those already retired.

Other budget items included:

• Capital improvement plan called for spending of $145.6 million between 2009 and 2013. A large part of this would go to financing the new jail. A bond issue was planned in 2010 to raise $51.6 million and a millage increase was likely in the same year.

• Bond issues were also planned in 2010 of $35 million and $125 million for greenbelts and roads respectively. The bond issues had already been discussed in meetings last year. The interest and amortization were to be funded from half-cent sales tax receipts.

Other items approved yesterday were:

• Changes in relation to the County Fee Ordinance. The County made a number of amendments to Building Services and many related to language. However, some fees were raised but not for the major categories. The increases were made to offset the higher cost of administering the program after some adjustments approved by Council earlier this month.

• The Committee also approved a new ordinance relating to Water Dependent Use. This ordinance is part of the Zoning and Land Development Ordinance. The change was undertaken to bring the County’s ordinance in line with that of OCRM and SCDHEC. It deals with marinas, boat ramps etc.