Benefits sales representative John Leggett explains high health insurance costs as Commissioner Robert Goff studies the numbers and County Attorney Robin Rogers looks on gravely.
The Dade County Commission scrimped, combed, cut and stretched to come up with a solution to its 2019 budget shortfall before Thursday’s special called meeting, at which the commissioners were scheduled to consider the budget for approval. The solution they arrived at was: Another special called meeting next Thursday, June 28.
Between now and then will doubtless follow more scrimping, combing, cutting and stretching, but optimism was at low ebb at the July 21 meeting about finding new solutions. “We’ve cut and cut for the past several years," said Executive Chairman Ted Rumley. "We’re going to wind up cutting services,”
“The only place left is to lay people off,” said County Clerk Don Townsend after the meeting, a sentiment Rumley had also expressed when questioned later.
In fact, though they got no raise or cost of living supplement this year, employees are the problem—or at least the amount of money exacted by the health insurance industry to provide employees medical coverage—as was demonstrated by John Leggett, a sales executive of MSI Benefits Group the commission had brought in to explain the 25 percent health insurance hikes that were at the heart of this year’s budget woes. Leggett assured the commission Blue Cross/Blue Shield was losing serious money on Dade County and that by his company’s calculation the hike was only 17 percent.
It’s not just that health insurance costs more now, said Leggett, but that more people are covered: Last year, he said, 19 people left Dade’s employment, 12 of whom had health insurance through the county. The 19 were replaced by only 18, but of these 18, 15 opted into the insurance coverage this time. The figures are further skewed by individuals who have families and wish their spouses and children also to have access to medical attention—the employer contribution part of family coverage further swells the county’s health insurance bill.
As far as cutting costs: "We're about as far as we can go," Sheriff Ray Cross told the commission. He said Dade pays jailers so little that two or three shake the dust every month. "What we're doing is training them to work for Walker County," he said.
Clerk Townsend detailed how budget crunching this week had been complicated when he realized he’d overlooked in his insurance calculations two new hires at the jail who will become eligible for coverage in July. (Sheriff Ray Cross in his own address to the commission explained that the high stress, low pay and constant turnover at the jail means there are always new hires there.) But luckily, said Townsend, these were not employees with families to add to the county's insurance burden. “Thankfully they’ve hired two individuals that were single,” he said.
Whatever the cost, Leggett warned it would be a mistake to see insurance coverage elsewhere. Another company might offer lower rates this year, he said, but stick it to the county next year. “That is real,” he said. “That does happen.”
In which case, Dade mustn’t come crying back to Blue Cross/Blue Shield: “If you leave the pool, you can’t come back for two years,” said Leggett.
Even with the two new health insurance liabilities, Dade’s budget underage at the June 21 meeting had shrunk a little from where it was at the June 14 hearing--$600,000 this week from $730,500 last week. Townsend said that not only had snips been made on the expense side, but expected revenues had been boosted a little by expected income from the sale of land.
The county, explained Townsend, owns 36 acres on Back Valley Road that were acquired by Sole Commissioner Larry Moore back when Dade had a working landfill and planned to expand it. Now the county had no need for the land and had last tried to unload it at an auction on May 28—2011.
As readers may recall, the catastrophic tornadoes of April 27, 2011, were especially catastrophic on Back Valley Road, where power lines dangled to the pavement, houses disappeared and a pathway of no-longer-thereness is still dramatically visible. Anyhow, said Townsend, the county didn’t get any takers when the auction was scheduled a month later.
But he still had the sales flyer, which lists the land as in a “great location,” “near Trenton Golf Club,” with “county water,” “paved road frontage” and “excellent building sites.” All those attributes are still true, and the county hopes to get a reasonable price for the land seven years after its first stab.
This week’s budget numbers were also affected adversely by Townsend’s discovery Dade would get less LMIG (local maintenance and improvement grant) money for roads. He’d estimated $350,000 but has now learned the actual number is $335,410.73.
One cost-cutting strategy discussed at the June 21 meeting was cutting the popular DDS Mondays, when Georgia sends driver’s license examiners to Dade on Mondays, to one a month. That might allow the county to break even on the service, said Townsend.
It emerged that the program, which is subsidized by the Southeast Lineman Training Center, which uses it heavily, costs the county $46,000. SLTC pays only $13,500 of that.
As the budget stood on Thursday evening, it showed total revenue of $9,949,800 and total expenses of $10,549,800.
The next budget meeting is at 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 28, in the Dade Administrative Building. The public is welcome.