Decision to be made on health credit perk

ALBANY, Ga. -- City leaders are considering a proposal offered by Ward VI Albany City Commissioner Tommie Postell that would put more than $4,000 of health insurance credits into the expense accounts of commissioners who opt out of the city's health coverage.

Postell presented the proposal during Tuesday's work meeting. Since city officials are treating the policy as if it were a de-facto pay increase for officials, despite saying that it is not, they say they intend to wait until May to decide on the matter after having held the required number of public hearings and advertising in The Herald. Should it pass with a majority of commissioners, it would be implemented following the November 2011 election as required by law.

Under the policy, commissioners who decide to opt out of using the city's health insurance plans would still receive the benefit of roughly $4,257 which would be deposited into their expense accounts annually.

Currently, commissioners can elect to enroll in the health insurance plans offered by the city which are identical to the plans and policies of employees, officials say.

The city then pays 75 percent of the cost of the plan, with the individual responsible for 25 percent.

Under Postell's proposal, the 75 percent -- $4,257 -- that the city typically pays to its enrollees, would also go to commissioners who decide not to enroll in the city's health plan.

Currently, Commissioners Jon Howard and Bob Langstaff, along with Mayor Pro-Tem Christopher Pike, are enrolled in health coverage under the city while Mayor Willie Adams and Commissioners Dorothy Hubbard, Roger Marietta and Postell are not.

"I feel like three commissioners are getting a perk, but the rest of us don't get it," Postell said. "It just isn't fair, and this would help to increase the fairness of it."

The fee for the three commissioners who are enrolled in the plans is deducted from their commission paychecks, Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said. No commissioners currently receive any stipend, credit or money to pay health care expenses.

Georgia law requires that elected officials wait until the next election cycle for when the government is up for re-election to implement any increase in salary. The law also requires that public hearings be held and that the city advertise their intentions in the legal organ of the county.

The proposal is likely to draw criticism from city employees who are excluded from the proposal and would not have the same option as their elected officials to be paid for opting out of the insurance plan.

According to Mary LaMont, the human resources director for the city of Albany, roughly 10 percent -- or 90 people -- of the city's full-time work force currently choose not to enroll in the city's health plan.

Lamont said that the two biggest reasons for opting out is the financial burden that some are unable to meet and the fact that some employees choose to be covered under their spouse's insurance plans.

Postell, Adams, Marietta and Hubbard are all, in fact, covered under other health insurance plans which why they aren't enrolled, they say.

An additional point of contention may arise when the Fiscal Year 2011 budget is adopted later this year. A proposed budget unveiled Tuesday eliminates merit bonuses and cost-of-living increases for city employees in an effort to close a $4 million deficit.

In her presentation to the commission Tuesday, Lamont said that she contacted nine different municipalities in the Southeastern U.S. to compare and contrast similar policies.

Seven of the nine cities responded and out of those seven -- Augusta, Columbus, Valdosta, Macon, Savannah, Dothan, Ala., and Tallahassee, Fla. -- none had any program in place that provides credits to elected officials who opt out of health coverage.

Lamont did say that at UPS, the private package delivery service from where she had worked previously, that they had a policy similar to the one offered by Postell, with one major exception -- it was offered to all employees.