MARY ANN ANDERSON
Hazlehurst City Council’s second called meeting within a week’s time to discuss employee health insurance began civilly but turned contentious by its end. The Monday night meeting, which followed another held last Tuesday, ended with a 4-1 vote to defer the discussion to yet another called meeting, with Mayor Bayne Stone casting the sole dissenting vote.
During the Tuesday meeting, the council heard a lengthy presentation by Tommy Hayes, a benefits consultant with MSI Benefits Group of Kennesaw, that would save the city about $80,000 a year for health insurance for roughly the same coverage that it now has under its self-insured package with Paragon Insurance. The new coverage with MSI, Hayes said, would come under the “umbrella” of the Georgia Municipal Association’s member communities, which essentially evenly distributes health insurance costs among the towns who participate in the program.
Also at issue was whether city employees, who before now received health insurance as part of their benefits package, would begin sharing a portion of that cost. After a nearly hourlong meeting, the council elected to have another called meeting on Monday night, that coming after Stone instructed each to speak to their respective departments, both employees and department heads, to get their input into the matter.
Ward 1 Councilman Dywane Johnson is over public works, with Ward 2’s John Ramay over the water and sewer department. Ward 3’s Diane Leggett is over fire-rescue, with Ward 4 Councilman John Bloodworth overseeing the police department. Stone supervises City Hall, Hazlehurst Municipal Airport and the municipal golf course.
Stone began the Monday meeting by saying the current insurance with Paragon is too costly and has too many problems. He then said the much less expensive quote from MSI was, “a prayer answered from the Good Lord above.”
Currently, the city is paying $1,132 per employee per month with Paragon, but that cost will rise to $1,200 for the January renewal. MSI quoted the city at $929 per employee per month under the GMA umbrella plan.
Stone then asked the council to approve his proposal that employees pay 10 percent of the cost, which adds up to about $100 each month per employee.
That opened up the lively discussion among the council members, with Bloodworth, speaking of the employees in the police department, saying he wanted them to have a “clear understanding” of why they may end up paying for insurance that was previously provided at no charge.
“I either think they don’t understand or that we’re throwing them to the wolves,” Bloodworth said. “They just feel like they don’t have an advocate up here, and for us to make them pay additional monies out of their wages when they have not received raises, they feel like they’re busting their butts and having to pay more money out of their pockets.”
Ramay said that it was “like we’re slapping our employees in the face” to ask for money when no raises are planned.
But Johnson said that he had “put it in everyday language” when he spoke to his employees in public works, adding that he expressed to them that the city had to do something about the cost of insurance. Most, he said, understood that it was better to have insurance and pay a portion for it than not have it.
Stone then tried to justify that the entire health insurance package is worth about $15,000 a year to each employee, but that he didn’t think that most understand it is considered a part of their salary.
That’s when Bloodworth countered, “They don’t understand. It doesn’t put bread on the table.”
City Clerk Vernice Thompson chimed in, “Employees need to hear this … we pay health insurance, dental insurance, short term disability, long-term disability, and retirement for every employee. So, not only are we paying the health insurance, we’re paying for all of this. If you start adding this up, it’s more than just the health insurance that the City of Hazlehurst taxpayers are paying.”
Again Bloodworth countered that he wasn’t trying to be argumentative, but that employees have “skin in the game” with sometimes difficult jobs. To move on, he then made the motion to accept the insurance proposal from MSI, which unanimously passed, but then the coin flipped back to employee’s financial participation in the new plan.
When Ramay asked if a decision had to be made that night, Stone reminded the council that the city isn’t getting enough revenue as it is and that it is in “a bad financial posture.” He reminded the council members that he had previously asked for an increase in ad valorem taxes to take financial pressure off the city, but it was voted down. He was ready for the vote.
Bloodworth struck back once more on delaying the vote that employees pay a portion of the health insurance by saying, “We need to educate them and let them understand. As long as they understand, I have peace of mind.”
Johnson was attempting to be the peacemaker, saying that city employees “deserve everything we can give them.”
A visibly frustrated Stone said the council was “beating this to death,” but Ramay, like Bloodworth, interjected that employees would be concerned about groceries they would be putting on the table, and that $100 a month coming out of their paychecks would place a “heavy hit” on their grocery bill.
“I’m not saying for us to not have them contribute,” Bloodworth reminded the council, his voice rising before asking to defer the matter to a later date. “Let’s educate them first.”
Stone then called for the vote on the deferment. When the four council members raised their hands, he didn’t, ending that the final vote was 4-1, saying, “Let it be known that the mayor is in opposition, as it’s not in the best interests for the City of Hazlehurst.”
That’s when Bloodworth argued, “We owe it to them to educate them. I didn’t say not to do it. My department doesn’t want it.”
Stone bounded back, telling Bloodworth that since the discussion had stopped, that he “ought to be happy.”
After Ramay suggesting another called meeting, Bloodworth lobbed back to Stone, “It’s not stopped. It’s just not tonight.”