About 40 city of Macon fire and police department retirees packed a Thursday afternoon pension board meeting, angry about the amount of money being put into the pension fund and about the mayor’s proposed changes to health insurance plans.
Even board members clashed with each other during the meeting at City Hall that was testy in tone.
Former Bibb County Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop, who is retired from the police department and sits on the pension board, spoke up even as the board tried to conduct its regular business.
Councilman Charles Jones, the board’s chairman, told Bishop, “You’re not going to run this meeting. You need to wait until you’re recognized (to speak).” Addressing the crowd of retirees who lined the walls, Jones added, “You all are not going to bully me.”
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Bishop said he was upset that no one from the city’s finance department was there to explain why retirees are shouldering so many of the changes in the mayor’s proposed budget.
The mayor’s plan would move Medicare-eligible retirees from the city’s health-care plan to Medicare Advantage and would bump up the eligibility age for retirees to 55 years old.
The changes also would exclude workers hired after July 5, 2005, from receiving city insurance in retirement.
In addition, retirees living within 50 miles of the city would have to use the health maintenance organization — or HMO — plan. Those with dependents on the city’s insurance plan would be responsible for 100 percent of the premiums as opposed to the 75 percent they now pay.
City officials have said these retiree plan changes would save taxpayers an estimated $1.18 million a year.
Fire Capt. Danny Angelo, who also sits on the board, said Bishop wanted to “create a circus” for political reasons.
“Charlie, I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Angelo said, “but you got all these retirees riled up about health insurance, and this is a pension meeting.”
When Bishop tried to respond, Angelo said, “I’m not a politician. I don’t have to lie to get a vote.”
Angelo apologized during the meeting to Bishop, but the two soon argued again.
When Angelo tried to ask Bishop if he was saying the active employees of the police and fire departments shouldn’t get their long-awaited pay scale, Bishop interrupted and said Angelo was using his pension board seat to obtain a higher rank in the department.
Police Lt. Danny Thigpin, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, told the board that he and the FOP were responsible for encouraging the retirees to attend the meeting because they’re troubled by the city’s approach to the next fiscal year’s budget.
“It’s wrong for them to try to balance the budget on the retirees’ backs,” he said.
After the meeting, he said every bonus, raise and incentive has been stripped from the police force.
“(The city) took everything away from us just to save a dollar,” Thigpin said.
Sparks flew again as Jones tried to close the meeting. He tried to remind Bishop that the meeting is for pension issues, not a general forum to air grievances.
Still, Bishop persisted, turning to Assistant City Attorney Katherine Kalish. He insinuated that the city attorney’s office would still try to represent both the board and the city, despite a possible conflict of interest, if the board tried to force the city to follow the actuarial study’s recommendation.
Kalish fired back, “Charlie, I think you’ve gone way too far.”
Jones finally closed the meeting, then Thigpin and a couple dozen retirees met in City Council chambers. Councilman Rick Hutto, who was fished from the council’s budget review by a FOP representative, addressed the retirees with his concerns.
While Hutto said he thinks employees and retirees should pay more of their health insurance premiums, he said he’s extremely uncomfortable with changes that would require a retiree to pay up to $2,500 a month for coverage.
According to a handout from the mayor’s office, there is one non-Medicare eligible retiree with a Preferred Provider Organization plan — or PPO — who is currently paying $465 a month plus $75 for each additional family member.
PPO plans are typically more expensive, but even under the HMO plan, the premium would jump for 13 retirees from $337.50 a month plus $75 for each additional family member to $1,361 a month under the mayor’s proposed changes. Almost 60 retirees, who currently pay $337.50 a month for their HMO plans, would end up paying $906.50 a month under the mayor’s proposal.
Retirees, many who say they are working jobs just to stay afloat, say the increase would devastate them.
Retired police detective Bobby Arrington said he recently had a liver and kidney transplant. Without his health insurance, the cost would have “definitely bankrupted” him, he said. If the coverage cost goes too high, he won’t be able to afford it. Finding coverage on the private market, he said, would be nearly impossible.
The group of retirees entered the council’s conference room toward the end of the city’s budget review. The sudden crowd seemed to surprise Councilman Mike Cranford, who initially asked the group to leave unless it wanted to hear the council review the budget for Bowden Golf Course.
In the end, the retirees stayed and were given a chance to ask for a definitive list of the proposed changes so they can make an informed argument to the City Council on June 21 before it votes on the budget.
Former Fire Chief Jimmy Hartley, who retired from the department two years ago, said, “What they’re doing may be legally right, but it’s morally wrong.”
To contact writer Chris Horne, call 744-4494.