News Column

OPINION: Preliminary look at budget indicates $3 million in additional costs

May 20, 2014

By Matthew Strother, LaGrange Daily News, Ga.

May 20--Troup County is looking at a $1.8 million increase in health care costs for its upcoming fiscal year, county officials said during a preliminary budget overview Monday.

Increasing costs of care combined with employee costs remaining relatively low have started to cost the county, officials said.

The county recently contracted with LaGrange-based Houze & Associates Inc. for insurance broker services. Don Miller, executive director of strategic benefit planning for Houze, told officials on Monday that the county is paying 90 to 95 percent of its employees' health care package costs, and an average one-third of its payroll expense goes toward benefits.

"You're in total paying $6.2 million and your employees are paying $500,000," Miller said.

Miller said the county plan costs have jumped 79 percent since 2012, with more high claims over $100,000 and Affordable Care Act fees and required additional coverage costing an additional $78,000. However, employee premiums and costs have remained steady.

Employees' bi-weekly premiums will increase to place more of the cost on employees rather than the county.

For example, a single employee will go from paying $15.77 per paycheck to $20, or from $25.77 to 30 for tobacco users, while those on family plans will go from $30.53 to $50, or $40.53 to $60 for tobacco users. Co-pays for specialists, out-of-network physicians and prescriptions also will increase for employees.

County Manager Tod Tentler said the premiums are still relatively low, noting that the city of LaGrange recently upped its premiums to $60 for a single, non-tobacco user. That also doesn't include additional fees for city employees that don't meet health goals, which can up to double the premium cost.

"We have such good insurance, that anyone with a spouse is putting them on the plan," Tentler said. "Twenty five dollars is still a bargain, we probably need to go up higher ... but we want to do it slowly, because this hurts the employees' pocket books."

Tentler said LaGrange has been increasing its health care premiums over the years, while also giving raises. The county has "gone a different route," by keeping its premiums steady and not giving raises, so Tentler said county officials need to look at both in the future.

Tentler and Miller added that another part of health care costs that is hurting the county is that because employees' costs are currently so low, they are not price shopping. That leaving the county to pick up a bigger tab for employees' doctor visits and prescriptions.

The county currently offers employees and anyone on an employee plan free visits to the WeCare clinic, which also has a list of prescriptions that are free to employees and cost the county far less. Miller noted that Houze would be promoting the use of the clinic to employees and their spouses on county insurance more to encourage them to go.

The clinic is currently only open Monday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tentler said he has been trying to convince the city of LaGrange to join in with the clinic, which would split the cost and potentially allow it to open more days. Tentler said he also has spoken with another industry that may be interested in the clinic.

Another factor anticipated to hurt next year's budget is $800,000 less in prisoner reimbursements from the state. Judicial reform is moving sentenced prisoners out of the county jail and over to the Corrections Institute quicker.

Previously, the county received payment from the state for every day a prisoner was kept in the jail past a certain date. Without that revenue, the county is looking at the $800,000 decrease.

The sheriff's department also has seen increased expenses coming from the county that previously would have been paid for with the drug seizure funds. The sheriff's drug seizure funds were depleted by previous Sheriff Donny Turner after his primary election loss to current Sheriff James Woodruff.

Those additional expenses, which include vehicles and bullet-proof vests, total about $350,000.

Looking at preliminary numbers for the 2015 budget, county officials are counting on property tax revenue remaining unchanged from last year. The property tax digest will not be ready until May 27, but CFO Scott Turk said that while early numbers indicate that residential housing is down about 2 percent, he believed business and industry should make up the difference.

Some new expenses the county is considering include an estimated $85,000 for the first part of a three-year plan to replace the fire department's turnout gear. Commissioner Morris Jones asked why the turnout gear couldn't be funded by special-purpose, local-option sales tax funds, since it should be considered part of public safety equipment.

Tentler said officials weren't sure if the turnout gear would qualify for using SPLOST dollars, but were checking. Tentler said to be safe, the county is treating the gear as a general fund expense until they find out otherwise.

Other expenses planned in the preliminary budget include about $110,000 for other capital outlay projects, including two new dishwashers and four walk-in coolers for the jail, two specialized washing machines for the fire department that Tentler said will reduce the wear on their uniforms, and eight lawn mowers, whose cost of $11,000 would be covered by the recreation endowment fund.

A 10 percent share in a new Department of Transportation vehicle for Troup Transit and re-purposed van for Parks and Recreation, along with three new sheriff's office vehicles and a shop truck are expected to account for $207,859 in vehicle expenses.

Also, the county anticipates $200,000 spending on its second year of refurbishing convenience centers. Another $50,000 in expenses is expected for updated software for the tax commissioner's office and $100,000 for court software maintenance.

The county also is looking at 1.5 percent merit raises for well-performing employees, especially in light of the increasing health care costs.

Other priorities that Turk pointed out include adding $65,000 to the District Attorney's budget for increased case loads in Troup County, $40,000 to the public defender's office, an additional $45,000 for building maintenance and $20,000 for automobile fuel costs. However, Turk noted that the budget information is still all very preliminary until the county knows what the tax digest looks like later this month.

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(c)2014 the LaGrange Daily News (LaGrange, Ga.)

Visit the LaGrange Daily News (LaGrange, Ga.) at www.lagrangenews.com

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Source: LaGrange Daily News (GA)


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