County workers get more money for insurance as pension debt looms

Fresno County contributions for insurance are near the bottom of a survey by county officials. With county supervisors’ approval, the contributions will rise $50.
Fresno County contributions for insurance are near the bottom of a survey by county officials. With county supervisors’ approval, the contributions will rise $50. Fresno

Fresno County supervisors voted Tuesday to give employees $50 more per pay period to cover their higher health insurance rates, but another financial problem looms that could jeopardize the county’s ability to maintain those payments.

The increased contribution costs the county about $9.1 million this year. The cost to the county’s general fund is $1.6 million, and the remainder is coming from state and federal funds that cover the wages of most county employees. The county will use surplus general fund dollars to cover its portion.

The county still has some groups to wrap up negotiations with, including the Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association and other law enforcement affiliated groups, said Jean Rousseau, county administrative officer. He anticipates the cost of the law enforcement groups’ coverage will be an additional $400,000 for this year.

The vote to approve the additional money for health insurance was 4-1.

Rousseau said it was “a good faith effort on the board’s part to approach the bargaining units and use one-time money to help offset that impact.” The “one-time money” is not guaranteed to be available in future years.

The lone dissenting vote was cast by Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who said she opposed using those dollars to cover the costs.

“There is no question something needed to be done, but this decision puts the county in a tough fiscal situation,” Poochigian said. “I’ve been here eight years and I don’t believe I’ve ever supported using one-time money for ongoing expenses, and that’s exactly what this is for, expenses that will be there year after year.”

Rousseau said there is concern going into next year about the growth of revenues meeting ongoing expenses. The county will likely use one-time money once again to buffer the employees’ insurance rates.

“It’s going to be tough going forward, but this is something that is important for us to do,” he said. “If we have to use one-time money next year, we’ll do that.”

But the county has another issue looming, a debt of up to $50 million in a refinanced pension obligation bond. The county has $30 million set aside to reimburse the federal government.

The pension obligation bond has been an issue for the county over the past 10 years, and Supervisor Henry R. Perea said the county should push negotiations with state and federal officials to get the issue cleared up.

The $30 million that the county has set aside shows that it has an interest in being responsible, he said.

Employees’ insurance premiums have risen, taking a larger-than-expected bite out of their paychecks. Supervisors last year supported phasing in 9 percent in added wages over two years, the same amount workers lost in 2011 due to budget cuts. But those wage increases won’t be fully returned until next budget year.

The double-digit premium increases resulted from employees overusing their health insurance plans with higher-than-normal trips to emergency rooms.

Supervisors discussed the problem last month and were seeking ways to improve insurance contributions while encouraging employees to avoid unnecessary emergency room and other preventable high-cost medical visits. The new rates and contributions go into effect in mid-December.

In other action:

▪ Supervisors removed language from ordinance codes that previously outlawed “all solid fuel/wood burning open hearth fireplaces, fire pits and barbecues” in unincorporated areas of Fresno County.

Supervisors approved the prohibition in 2005, when the board wanted to make rules more stringent than the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s. On Tuesday, supervisors decided they would meet, but not exceed, the air district’s regulations.

Even though the rule was in place for 11 years, Bernard Jimenez, the county’s deputy planning director, said the county didn’t enforce it.

▪ Supervisors approved a temporary urgency ordinance related to Proposition 64, which allows less than 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use. The supervisors clarified language to conform with state law that authorizes them to regulate recreational outdoor cultivation and prohibits the county from making it a violation to possess less than 28.5 grams. Supervisors will return next month to further address the issue.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin