BROOKSVILLE — Trying to send a message that all county employees should be treated equally, the Hernando County Commission is preparing to ask constitutional officers once again to reduce their 2011-12 budgets.
At the suggestion of Commissioner Dave Russell, the board will request cuts equal to the dollars those officers have chosen to spend for a better health plan for their employees than the insurance being offered to other county employees.
By not asking all employees to take the less-expensive health insurance, Tax Collector Juanita Sikes, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek, Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams are sending the wrong message, Russell said Wednesday.
The county's negotiating team has worked out an insurance and benefits package with Teamsters Local 79 that would drop a three-tiered health insurance to two tiers, with the county contributing less toward premiums than in the past.
At the table, Teamsters members voiced concern that furloughs and other cuts they are considering had not been accepted by the constitutional officers in the past, and they wanted equity.
Then, the day after the County Commission approved the 2011-12 county budget — including the budgets of constitutional officers — the four officers announced that they were not going to go with the two-tier health insurance system, but would stick with the more expensive three-tier system.
Sheriff Al Nienhuis, also a constitutional officer, has a separate insurance arrangement for his employees.
Commissioners, including Russell, were disappointed. Teamsters business agent Steve Mosely expressed concern that the lack of participation by the constitutional officers could sink the union members' vote on the contract.
"We have some really ticked-off union folks, and I can't say I blame them one bit,'' Russell said Wednesday. "The only control we have over the constitutionals is in fiscal policy. We can't force them to do anything. They're elected officials just as we are.''
Commissioner John Druzbick said he agreed with sending the letter, though the commission cannot force the officers to accept the less expensive insurance.
"I just want to see what their response will be,'' Druzbick said.
Russell said he had expected more cooperation throughout the budget process from the constitutional officers. The commission is trying to make sure all employees are on equal footing, and that includes those who work for the constitutional officers, as well as the employees represented by the Teamsters and the firefighters and deputies unions.
He acknowledged that the potential savings amounts to just $42,347 for the county's general fund.
"It's not much," he said, "but there's a principle here.''
First of all, Russell said, "we don't have the money.''
Beyond that, he said, "we're just trying to create some consistency and equity, and even these small things can create negativity with the employees, so it's not a small thing.''
Nicolai said her employees and those of the other constitutional officers were the reason they decided not to reduce health insurance coverage. Employees already have to now pay 3 percent toward their retirement and swallow a 13 percent increase in insurance premiums. Adding another hit through health insurance coverage would be too much, she said.
"I just couldn't do it. I couldn't sleep at night,'' Nicolai said.
She said she realized the news wouldn't play well with employees under the commission and union members.
"I feel bad about that," she said, "but I've got to do what is best for my employees.''
If the employees cannot take the hit, then the constitutional officers can find money elsewhere in their budgets, Russell suggested.
Said Nicolai: "I'm going to do my best.''
Russell said the formal request of the constitutional officers was one thing. "Next year," he said, "we're going to take a harder look at this, so I'm going to be interested to see what comes back.
"I'm not done yet.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.