County commissioners Tuesday morning wrapped up a day-long budget workshop continued from last week by doing what they said all along they planned to do – give the 165 county employees more pay for the upcoming fiscal year.
The $200,000 earmarked for an $1,100 across the board pay increase met with no formal objections from the five commissioners, who spent all day Thursday reviewing budget proposals from constitutional officers, county department heads, and various other government bodies who depend on county support.
The pay hike is just one component of what looks to be a roughly 9 percent increase in the millage rate for the next year, a shade more than a half-mill up from this year’s 5.9637 mills to a proposed 6.4938 mills.
Proceeds from this ad valorem taxation will total about $10.58 million, about $750,000 more than the $9.84 million generated by property taxes this fiscal year.
On Thursday morning, the commissioners began with a millage rate of 6.7684, which would generate about $11.05 million.
In her report, Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson told commissioners that Property Appraiser Rhonda Skipper had certified a 2013 taxable value of 1.11 percent less than in 2012, and just slightly above the county’s tax base in 2003. In 2013 one mill will generate $1.63 million; in 2012 one mill generated $1.65 million.
The commissioners reviewed the constitutional officers and department heads’ budgets, each of which had to factor in a shift in retirement costs from the state. This overall amounted to about $236,000 more county dollars than had to be paid into the state retirement system last year.
In addition, reported Erin Griffith, a staffer in the finance office, there would be about a $95,000 increase in the county’s Medicaid cost share, due to a state decision to modify how it invoiced counties for these charges.
“That’s nothing we can argue with,” said Griffith. “We’re not able to verify our resident listing anymore.”
Before reviewing the different departments, Commissioner Pinki Jackel indicated she would not be voting on whether to tentatively approve any of the budgets at the hearing. “I’m here to listen, learn and work through our numbers,” she said.
With the exception of the property appraiser’s office and the building department, each of the constitutional officers and departments showed an increase in next year’s budget, mostly between 1 and 5 percent.
In discussing the largest single budget, Sheriff Mike Mock said he had cut three positions from this year’s budget, and had offset the savings by putting in for three new vehicles in capital outlay. The sheriff proposed a $4.65 million budget, about 2.5 percent more than the $4.53 million spent this year.
He also said he had not handed out raises, but had made some promotions, and that the cost of cell phone service had decreased.
The sheriff’s finance director, Ginger Coulter, said medical costs for inmates were at a historically low level of $90,000. “We have very good management and hopefully it will stay that way,” she said, noting the jail’s pharmaceutical supplier allows for a buyback program for medications.
Jackel continued to focus on the issue of salary increases built into some of the budgets of constitutional officers and county departments.
She took aim at $2,000 pay increases built into staffers’ salaries by Supervisor of Elections Ida Elliott, who had proposed a 13.8 percent hike to this year’s budget of $268,000. Part of that increase was due to a proposed electronic poll book that staffer Heather Riley said would cost, together with maintenance and training, about $25,000.
Jackel was skeptical about the immediate need for the poll book, which is growing in popularity among counties but is not yet state mandated. “We’re in another tight budget scenario and every penny we add to that is an additional burden on taxpayers,” she said.
Jackel reiterated her views that it was unfair to have some officials include salary increases in their budgets, and then have these further enhanced with the across-the-board increases to all county employees.
“This is something the county has to pay for every year going forward,” she said. “I’m going to oppose $2,000 salary increases. We haven’t looked for what we can do for salary increase from department to department. This represents a stated increase over and above what salaries were last year.”
At Tuesday’s continuation of the budget workshop, Jackel said the clerk of courts and tax collectors’ offices were the only two departments not to build in salary hikes ahead of the commissioners’ decision what to apply across the board.
She called the matter “a flat out fairness issue” and suggested rather than apply the $1,100 across the board, to give constitutional officers and department heads a lump sum and have them divvy it up as they see fit.
“That way department heads can take into consideration who received raises and who did not,” she said. “At the end of the day there’s going to be a number of employees who don’t feel like they were treated fairly.”
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said, and his colleagues agreed, that it would be best to build in the salary increases into the budget total, and then decide at a later date specifically how to have the pay hikes applied to the respective budgets.
In order to bring the millage down to the current proposal, commissioners favored a decision that they first considered a year ago, which was to go entirely with the Capital Health Plan (CHP) health maintenance organization.
That move is expected to result in a savings of $324,000 over the current plan, which gives employees a choice of whether to opt for Blue Cross-Blue Shield or CHP. Had the commissioners stuck with the blended plan, they would have seen an $86,000 savings over this year’s health care costs.
Griffith said that the county would pay $610 per month per employee based on enrollment percentages, if they stuck with the blended option. By going with CHP, the county will pay just $451 monthly per employee, which covers individual, but not family, coverage.
“The downside on that (CHP) is they have no network in Bay County, but it would result in lower costs for employees,” said Griffith. “With CHP there are no deductibles, only copays, but you must stay in network. That’s one way they keep their costs down.”
At the request of the commissioners, Griffith surveyed county workers Monday in advance of Tuesday’s continued budget workshop. She said she received 70 responses out of 161 current enrollees in the health plan, about evenly divided between Blue Cross and CHP users.
She said nearly 40 percent of the Blue Cross enrollees said they would switch to CHP at open enrollment, which would mean a majority of county workers would be on CHP at the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Commissioners voiced concern that two of the county’s most popular health care providers, cardiologist Shezad Sanaullah and podiatrist Tamara Marsh, were not on the CHP network. They said they planned to assist in any way possible in getting the two on the network.
“I think we need to send the message that CHP is great health care,” said Jackel. “I know it’s a change and we all resist change. That’s just human nature somehow.”