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County to absorb health premium hike

Two months ago, county commissioners considered passing along a 20 percent increase in health insurance premiums to county employees who carry dependent care coverage.

On Tuesday, they decided the county should subsidize the increase.

Employees won't be stuck with the entire burden of paying for rising insurance premiums of their spouses and children.

"I'm concerned about our employees making it to absorb these costs," said Commissioner Josh Wooten. "I don't see how they can do it."

Not everyone agreed with Wooten's sentiment. Commissioner Vicki Phillips cast the sole dissenting vote, saying the move favored employees with dependents over those who don't have dependents.

"You're rewarding some employees but not rewarding others," she said. "My issue is that those employees with dependents are going to reap a benefit from the county that employees without dependents will not enjoy."

She also objected to the idea of government subsidizing health care coverage. Such practices would never occur in the private sector, she said.

The county pays for health care coverage for its own employees, and employees will continue to pay the majority of costs for their dependents. The county is simply absorbing the 19.4 increase from last year.

The county's budget office estimates there are 180 employees whose dependents participate in the health plan. The total cost to cover these dependents will be $95,000.

This figure stands in addition to the roughly $2.1-million the county will pay for monthly insurance premiums for the 620 employees covered by the plan, which is administered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

"I think it's a benefit to the employees that the premiums for dependent coverage are not going to change from this year to next year," said Cathy Taylor, the county's budget director. "That's money in your pocket, so to speak."

After employees learned in May that the county was projecting an increase in dependent care premiums, a few employees complained. They called the office of risk management and wanted an explanation. "Some people were unhappy," Taylor said.

The county's health care costs are skyrocketing because a few employees reported claims for expensive medical procedures last fiscal year. More employees are participating in the plan than ever before, and their doctors are prescribing more brand name drugs.

The commission's vote to absorb increases in dependent care coverage was just a small dose of relief for employees.

Employees will still have to foot a $5 increase in doctor's visits and prescription drug co-payments. And deductibles for visiting specialists and doctors who are outside the Blue Cross/Blue Shield network will increase by $200 for employees, and $400 for family members.

In other commission news:

ASSESSMENT: In November, county taxpayers will be re-introduced to a solid waste assessment on their tax bills.

The assessment, first agreed to by the commission in May, is $25 per household. The assessment will supplement tipping fees the county collects to pay for landfill maintenance, construction and professional studies.

This won't be the first time taxpayers will be charged a solid waste assessment. The assessment was first created in 1997, and appeared as a "municipal benefit service unit." Taxpayers didn't have to pay this charge last year because the landfill was free of debt.

Tipping fees for garbage haulers in the county's unincorporated area to deliver trash to the landfill are $30 per ton. That won't change under a new fee schedule approved by the commission.

"We have certain expenses that are really long-term planning and preparing for the future that we can't carry out at $30 per ton," said Susan Metcalfe, the county's solid waste director.

What will change are the tipping fees private and public haulers from Inverness and Crystal River pay at the landfill. The commission approved a $45 per ton tipping fee for city haulers, a $10 increase from current rates.

Crystal River City Manager Susan Boyer said she would ask the City Council to consider paying for the increase from the city's sanitation fund. She vowed the increased tipping fees would not be passed on to city residents.

The commission has wanted to explore alternatives to landfills, such as transfer stations or incinerators, and the new assessment would pay professional consultants to study these options. Phillips, in particular, has been interested in taking trash out of the county by rail.

FLOODING: Commissioners also asked staff to draft a report of all the flooding incidents that have occurred in the county since June, and recommend strategies for coping with future flooding.

"(Let's) take this as a learning experience," Wooten said.

Commissioner Gary Bartell lamented the fact that flooding continues to be a problem in Homosassa, where properties are at the lowest elevations in the county.

Bartell said the county "needs to be aggressive" about denying permits to people who want to build houses in the flood plain and low-lying areas.

He also suggested the county look at the engineering of retention ponds, since some appear to be completely dry while others have overflowed onto private property. Phillips reminded Bartell that retention ponds absorb stormwater at different rates.

Commissioners all spoke of the dozens of phone calls and e-mails they have received from constituents whose homes are flooded. Not everyone can be helped, however, because the county is forbidden from pumping water from private property.

"It's tough to tell those people, "we can't do anything for you,' " said Commissioner Roger Batchelor.

_ Archana Pyati can be reached at 860-7309 or apyatisptimes.com.

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