BROOKSVILLE — In state houses and city halls across the country, public officials have generated controversy by seeking to balance shrinking budgets by cutting public employee benefits.
That hot topic is coming soon to the Hernando County Commission.
On Tuesday, prompted by a request by Commissioner Wayne Dukes, the board agreed to a workshop May 3 to discuss possible changes to areas such as paid holidays, paid time off, cash payouts as employees leave their jobs and health insurance benefits.
"It's time appropriate,'' Dukes told commissioners. "It's today's environment.''
Dukes said Wednesday that he expected plenty of public debate once those issues are on the table for consideration. Comments at commission meetings and other public forums for the last several years have featured critics insisting that public employees are overpaid or receive benefits packages that are too rich.
The county is anticipating having to make up at least a $5 million general fund shortfall in the coming budget and County Administrator David Hamilton said Tuesday that he was going to be digging deeply into the county's proposed spending plan to bridge that gap.
Dukes said at the meeting that he wanted the commissioners to have in front of them details about employee benefits including numbers so that they know what they are spending and can compare what Hernando County employees receive with other employees in the public and private sectors.
Commissioner John Druzbick said he has raised issues about benefits previously and he was especially interested to hear more details about options for health insurance coverage.
Teamsters Local 79 was invited to come to the workshop to talk about a Teamsters health insurance plan through Central States Funds, according to business agent Steve Mosely. Of the county's 651 employees, 432 are under the Teamsters.
But the Teamsters have a wider interest in talking about all of the negotiable items the commission wants May 3. Mosely said he believes the county's employees, already stretched thin by a shrinking work force, "are taking more than their fair share of the burden'' of the budget balancing.
"We want the members covered, for heaven's sake. They haven't had a raise for like five years,'' Mosely said.
Last year, for example, the county rejected the Teamsters insurance package then got hit with a nearly 9 percent premium increase, an increase the employees had to pay on their own.
But in past commission discussions, questions were raised about just how bad a hit that is on county employees.
The county pays $335 per pay period, every two weeks, for single employees' health coverage.
Since the medical single coverage plans run between $174 and $311.50 a pay period, the difference goes to employees to help buy extra benefits such as vision or dental coverage, life insurance and disability plans.
For employee plus dependents, the county's contribution is $380; and for family coverage, $415.
Family insurance premiums run from $460.50 to $636.
Mosely said rising insurance costs are indeed a hit on county workers. "How are people going to afford to work for the county if this mentality of cutting continues?'' he asked.
Paid time off, a combination of vacation time plus sick time, has also generated discussion from the commission and the community.
Under the current policy, those who retire get to take a lump sum payment for 100 percent of their unused time and those who leave before retirement get paid 80 percent of their unused time.
Forty-hour-per-week employees earn 144 hours a year in their first three years. That grows gradually until employees reach 16 years and at that point, they earn 240 hours per year.
In addition, the county staff gets 12 paid holidays a year except for seasonal and temporary employees, according to the current policy.
Dukes said that he was told the county paid about $250,000 last year to departing employees. That has been especially controversial when employees are terminated and commissioners have discussed changing their policy to not allow payouts in those cases.
Human resources officials have asked for a legal opinion of such a change and a report is expected back to the commission in April or May, according to administrative services director Cheryl Marsden.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Wednesday that he wants to hear the discussion of employee benefits but he wanted to be sure that the union would be present.
"I want the Teamsters there because they are a part of our team,'' he said, noting that he also wouldn't mind hearing options from health insurance providers.
The Teamsters' contract with the county runs through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. But Mosely pointed out that the contract remains in effect until a new deal is signed.
Negotiations have not begun on a new contract, but Marsden noted that she hopes talks can begin in April.
Dukes said it is clear that all cost-cutting options need to be discussed to address the budget shortfall.
"If you read any newspaper or magazine you'll see that state, city and county governments are reviewing everything that is a burden on the taxpayers," Dukes said. "I don't think it's been done here in a long time.
"There will be no quick fix unless we start doing things differently.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.