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Most benefits for Hernando County workers in danger of cuts

BROOKSVILLE — As the county ramps up its budget cutting to bridge the general fund's anticipated $5.7 million revenue shortfall next year, county workers will be feeling more pain.

Not only do plans for the 2012 Hernando budget include 11 layoffs among 38 full-time equivalent positions that could be eliminated, most of the benefits the workers enjoy are on the table for possible cuts.

The Teamsters Union, which represents 440 of the County Commission's 663-member work force, will have to agree to whatever cuts are made.

During a workshop earlier this week, commissioners examined the employee health insurance options in detail, discussed how to limit the amount of unused paid time off employees can take with them when they leave their county jobs, discussed cutting salaries, and discussed eliminating two paid holidays and a possible furlough week between Christmas and New Years.

The benefit cuts would come after several years of frozen pay and a shrinking work force. Workers' pay and benefits were often vilified by citizens during the tax revolts of 2007 as the real estate market began to tank.

The county's employee health insurance program is up for renewal and the commission is considering requiring employees for the first time to start paying toward their basic plan.

Hernando now pays $670 a month toward premiums for single employees, $760 for an employee and spouse or employee and children, and $830 for a family. Those contributions add up to $7,581,360 in costs per year to the county.

The money from the county now covers all or most of the premiums, in some cases with money left over for the employee to choose other options such as vision or dental care.

The county is considering scaling back the insurance offerings and is reviewing several options, one of which could save more than $1.2 million.

One employee benefit that has incited acrimony from the community is the ability for an employee to take a lump sum payout of a portion of their unused paid time off when they leave their jobs. Paid time off accrues with seniority and takes the place of separate sick leave and vacation time.

Commissioners have been concerned about the wisdom of the policy, but they are especially concerned about giving those payouts to employees who are fired for cause.

Currently, the county has 152,144 hours of accrued paid time off on its books for employees, director of administrative services Cheryl Marsden told commissioners.

"This is an absolutely ludicrous program,'' said Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who said the county had paid out $200,000 to employees over the last year under the policy. He argued that paying people for sick time makes them come to work sick in order to bank the days.

"What we're doing is killing us,'' he said. "This is insane.''

Dukes suggested that the county return to a policy of sick time and vacation time.

Assistant county attorney Jon Jouben said the commission could make changes to the policy, but only from the moment the change was made forward could the policy be used. Current employees have earned their paid time off and up to the time of a change earned the right to take their payout when they leave.

Marsden suggested that Hernando could reduce the amount of paid time off an employee could earn, could require employees to take a couple of weeks off per year to spend down their accrued time or could limit the payout to those terminated for cause.

County staff will bring back options to the commission in the coming weeks.

Marsden said another cost-saving option could be the return of furlough days. If county staff took the week between Christmas and New Year's Day as a furlough, it could save the county $125,000, she said.

When the county did furloughs last year, "it was very complicated'' and caused confusion and disruption, said County Administrator David Hamilton. He noted that putting everyone on furlough at the same time might work better.

But Joe Stapf, director of environmental services, wondered if there would be county workers those days at the water plants or the landfill.

Dukes said he also had a concern. "We're public servants,'' he said.

Marsden noted one positive aspect to furloughs: While employees earned less, at least they got time off.

There also was a brief discussion by commissioners of cutting employee salaries directly, including cutting the commissioners' salaries, if a bill under consideration in Tallahassee allows that to happen.

Holidays were also on the table. County employees get 12 paid days of vacation every year and other governments offer a variety of days. State workers get 10 days off a year. Dukes suggested dropping the number to 10 and possibly eliminating the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

Marsden noted that most governments take those days off but that Presidents Day, Martin Luther King Day and Good Friday are sometimes not given. The county staff was expected to bring back more information.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Most benefits for Hernando County workers in danger of cuts 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 7:57pm]
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