"When the word of the insurance got out, I believe it was hotter than the landfill" issue, commissioner Jimmy Stitt told his fellow commissioners during their monthly meeting in the Courthouse Annex on Lewisburg's public square.
County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett says the county has planned to spend more than $1.1 million in three consecutive annual budgets for employee health insurance, all through the same agency. Changes leading to this year's planned policy caused controversy, but it was because the Budget Committee selected one plan from nine options.
The deductible for health insurance coverage went from $500 a year to $2,500 under a plan explained to some 180 county employees in three one-hour sessions on the afternoon of June 11. A day later, County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett was calling a special meeting of the commission this Tuesday to hear employee concerns. A few days later, Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill said Liggett agreed to cancel the special session since commissioners could hear from the public during other business at the monthly commission meeting Monday.
However, no public comment was heard during this Monday's meeting, largely because, as Neill explained, department directors were heard on June 18, Thursday last week, by the Budget Committee in another of its weekly meetings from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. as next year's budget is being formulated.
Commissioners decided to press the issue as discussion shifted from how bids were received for county building maintenance to shopping for better prices on health insurance.
County department leaders at the Budget Committee meeting last week, Neill reported, were "fine with" the committee's new direction. Earlier she explained that was to find some middle ground between the old $500 deductible and the planned $2,500 deductible. The higher amount had been criticized by Highway Superintendent Jerry Williams as something that would prevent some of his employees from going to the doctor when they get sick.
"Do we have a personnel committee?" Stitt asked. "If not, how do we get one?"
Neill replied and Employee Benefits Committee exists and the commission's Nominating Committee is to name members to that panel. She also directed Stitt to the Budget Committee for answers on health insurance, but Stitt pressed on.
"Did we get the best rate?" he asked about the cost of health insurance provided by the Malone Insurance Agency in Fayetteville.
"Rates and services are directly related," Neill replied.
Stitt: "Did we bid multiple companies?"
Nine alternatives were examined, Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the Budget Committee, replied. The Fayetteville agent adjusted terms of the policy to improve the policy.
"A lot of counties bid their policy," Stitt continued. "Did we?"
"No," King replied.
Another insurer can provide the "same coverage for less," Stitt said, but Neill countered that quote came without information about claims.
Officials have acknowledged that some health claims here have been substantial.
"You can get it for less; no question," Neill said, but Stitt replied the savings claimed by the other agent is a dollar amount that's about equal to county revenue from four cents on the property tax rate.
Stitt then asked about suspending rules of procedure that would otherwise limit commission action to what's listed on the agenda.
Stitt called for a decision by the commission to officially obtain information from the other insurance agent so the quotes could be compared.
"We can open it for several," Stitt said, "but I want to get quotes from this man."
Discussion on past procedures, liabilities and commission rules preceded two votes on Stitt's suggestions.
All but one of the 17 commissioners present voted to suspend the rules to permit an unscheduled decision. Commissioner Jimmy Wolaver abstained. Commissioner Dean Delk was absent.
A unanimous voice vote was heard on the motion to get more information on insurance premiums, deductibles and coverage.
Leading to that conclusion were suggestions from Commissioner Rocky Bowden.
Stitt's motion to get information from one agent was restated to allow any other broker to obtain the county's specification, or insurance needs, and submit a bid.
As for getting information from more than one agency, Stitt said, "I don't see anything negative that could come from it."
Neill pointed out that "Asking is one thing. Accepting is another" after new offers are received.
She also explained consequences from purchasing and subsequent audits by the state of county financial records. A "finding" of activities that don't comply with standards of accounting or other procedures as specified in state law can result in notations in audits. While there might not be consequences from the audit, it's an indication that there could be liability.
"You can take a 'finding,'" Neill said, "but will you get a lawsuit?"
Acknowledging that risk of litigation from disgruntled vendors, Bowden replied to Neill, "All we're asking for is information."
Bowden serves as chairman of the County's Board of Public Utilities and is a retired assistant principal at Forrest School. He brought the discussion on insurance to a close on how county spending might be balanced with county revenue.
"We have a lot of good, quality employees who work for us," he said. Increasing health insurance deductibles from $500 to $2,500 "is really tough on a family. I know the Budget Committee is working hard."
But the policy needs adjustment because, as presented, it "is nothing more than catastrophic coverage," he said.
Neill reported the Budget Committee was looking for a way to continue coverage, but Bowden said employees can't afford it as presented.
"The tax rate is high enough," Neill said and Bowden replied, "It may have to be higher."
The rate is now $3.09 per $100 of assessed value.