Concerns about health-care benefits in Macon’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget erupted Monday as some elected officials drew the wrath of dozens of retired city workers.
One retired firefighter was led out of the Macon City Council’s Appropriations Committee meeting by police officers after shouting protests to council members.
A handful of other retirees stormed out in protest, shouting as they left.
At stake for the retirees are proposed changes to their insurance plans that would mean rising costs for some of them and their families.
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At stake for the city is balancing the proposed $71.9 million budget before June 30 and addressing rising health-care costs amid a struggling economy.
“Welcome to the wonderful world of the health-care crisis,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said after the meeting, shaking his head.
The committee ultimately approved the budget, sending it to full council tonight for a final vote — with one notable difference.
After committee Chairman Mike Cranford asked to build in a 60-day window to study the health insurance issue separately, Councilman Tom Ellington moved to expand the window to Oct. 1, to give the administration and council more time to work on the issue.
Finance Director Tom Barber told the committee that such a delay would cost the city more than $200,000 per month for every month the changes were delayed, but the committee approved Ellington’s motion anyway.
The move likely won’t satisfy either side of the issue. The city is looking at a $2.3 million-to-$2.5 million cost difference with the new plan, and if the money doesn’t come from those paying into the plan, the city administration would have to find the money somewhere else, such as raising the millage rate or cutting some other part of the budget.
Reichert said about 85 of the city’s 1,600 retirees would be hit severely by the proposed plan, which requires participants to pay 100 percent of their spouse’s premium cost.
That would mean an increase from the current rate of $337.50 a month to a new rate of $906.50 per month. The new rate breaks down to $137.35 for the former city employee and $769.15 for the spouse.
Retirees were informed of the changes via a letter sent last week by city Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas.
‘Most difficult issue’
Monday, former city workers packed City Hall to voice their concerns.
Jim Wood, a retired firefighter, told the committee members that he considered his wife a fellow employee, since she raised their family many nights when he was out doing his job.
“My wife served, too,” said Wood, who was later escorted by officers after protesting when Cranford declined to let Councilwoman Elaine Lucas speak.
Former Macon-Bibb County Fire Chief Jimmy Hartley said he understands the city is in a budget crunch, but he thinks the city should work with retirees to come up with a more equitable solution.
“I know the city is strapped,” he said. “I know they are in a bad way. I think it’s indicative of the fiscal shape the city is in that they are even proposing this. ... But this should not have been forced on us. This is too much, too soon.”
Reichert told the committee that Thomas, Barber and Human Resources Director Ben Hubbard worked hard to come up with the current budget, one they consider best for the city.
“We crafted a budget between our resources and our needs,” Reichert said. “Health care was the most difficult issue. The city has been confronted with unsustained costs. ... An extra $2.5 million would be needed without the changes we proposed.”
But Councilman Rick Hutto said the administration was being “intellectually dishonest” about the changes. He noted that the health-care costs for city employees making more than $80,000 a year would go down, as would costs for council members.
Lucas tried several ways to delay the vote to send the budget to the council tonight. She wanted Councilwoman Nancy White to be recused from the committee vote, saying White had a financial stake in the budget process as an executive at The Medical Center of Central Georgia, which would be the new health-care provider under the proposed changes.
City Attorney Pope Langstaff said it was OK for White to vote.
Lucas also made a motion to delay the vote to approve the budget, which was defeated. She and Councilman Virgil Watkins were the no votes as the committee finally approved the budget 3-2.
Other changes made to the proposed budget Monday include approving the budgets for Bowden Golf Course and the city’s Information Technology department; approving $40,000 for unallocated resources, to be used for a community purchasing office; and a one-time $15,000 item to approve money to the Macon-Bibb County Parks and Recreation Department for vouchers to help youngsters participate in community sports.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.