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County caps insurance payouts for employees

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Issues tiered offsets through raises

By Sean Arnold

Levy County is on the high end of spending on health insurance for employees among Florida counties, and it’s proving costly to keep up with rising insurance costs while still offering competitive compensation packages to recruit and retain its workforce.

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At the Board meeting on July 18, the County Commission voted unanimously to cap its health insurance payouts for non-elected county employees who sign up for insurance.

The resolution also increases employee wages while bringing insurance costs for the county more in line with similar-sized counties, as Levy is relatively low on the spectrum in employee pay in the state.

The Board voted to max out its payouts for employee insurance at $9,512 per employee, while increasing the average wage of full-time employees by $2,180. The wage increases will be offered in tiers, with the highest paid employees seeing $1,000 more per year, and the lowest gaining $3,000 in per-year salary.

Commissioner Matt Brooks offered the motion, and it was seconded by Rock Meeks.

The resolution doesn’t change the coverage options, so employees can keep their current plans.

But employees wishing to retain the highest-paying family plan will have to pay substantially more out of pocket – approximately $5,500 more per year, according to county figures – as the $9,512 cap will apply to both single and family plans.

The change doesn’t affect employees of the Levy County Sheriff’s Office, which has a separate insurer from the county. It will affect elected officials’ insurance, but they will not see a raise from the resolution. Finance Officer Jared Blanton told the Board that the cap would affect three Commissioners, as they’re on higher-paying family plans.

At last count, Levy County spent an average of $12,488 per employee on insurance, with family plans costing around $6,000 more on average for the county. That former number puts the county fifth in the state among the 46 (of 67) counties who responded to a recent survey. Alachua, Marion and Citrus were No. 15, No. 22 and No. 41, respectively, in insurance spending per employee according to that survey. The four counties ahead of Levy have between 10 to 40 times more employees.

The most recent total insurance spending for the 199 non-elected employees who sign up for insurance was $2.485 million.

Blanton presented the Board with three options for insurance caps and pay raises, and outlined some of the issues the county faces when it comes to insurance. He said the combination of deficit spending and rising insurance costs as well as Levy County’s relatively high insurance spending and low wages is hampering the county’s ability to project and reign in the deficit.

Using wages to recruit and retain employees is more predictable for county expenses and gives the county more control over costs. Blanton added that wages are a more effective tool than insurance coverage at attracting employees.

A county employee at the meeting said the county’s insurance coverage plans are the major reason her and other employees choose to work for Levy County.

Board chair John Meeks said the Commission will have to reevaluate after the resolution’s effects on employee recruitment and retention become clear. Retention is especially an issue for the Department of Public Safety, not just in Levy County, but for local governments everywhere.

“It ain’t going to be fair, depending on where you stand,” Meeks said “but it’s a decision we have to make. We won’t know the full consequences until we make it.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel, I believe, in getting out of the deficit spending,” Meeks added. “But that light could definitely be extinguished with a 10 percent increase next year (in insurance costs).”

Prioritizing higher insurance compensation over higher wages also makes compensation less merit-based, the county argues, as employees with more expensive family plans often cost twice as much as those on single plans, while wages are suppressed by the overall insurance costs.

“We want to be fair to our employees, on the other hand, we don’t want to tax our residents out the nose,” Commissioner Lilly Rooks said.

Blanton said the current Board has inherited the problem of high insurance costs, and has done an “admirable” job in insulating county employees from budget woes.

“We can still reduce (insurance) participation a fair bit and beat any county around,” Blanton said. “But people that are opting for the family coverage will pay a price out of pocket.”