City, county employees may feel fiscal sting

ALBANY, Ga. -- Despite the best efforts of local government leaders to slash expenses rather than personnel, the effects of a lingering economic recession are now finally encroaching on the lives and livelihoods of the local government work force.

For the last three years, the Albany City Commission and the Dougherty County Commission have used every adjective under the sun to describe their efforts to deal with declining tax revenues.

"Belt-tightening," "trimming the fat," and "penny pinching," have joined "budget shortfall," and "declining revenues," as staples in the government lexicon.

To that end, City Manager Alfred Lott and County Administrator Richard Crowdis have cut much of what they believe to be extraneous spending at the department level.

To a large degree, open positions haven't been filled. Departmental budgets have been slashed. More work for both the city and the county is being done in-house where possible to cut costs.

But while both administrators have managed to cut costs in areas mostly designed to spare their employees from having to sacrifice during these tough times, the toll is beginning to add up.

Both sets of employees have sacrificed cost-of-living increases, which are small annual pay adjustments based on inflation. Both have seen workloads increase and have watched as supervisors pressed for less overtime.

In fact, there are only two major disparities in terms of personnel benefits -- outside the initial pay disparity between city and county employees, which is substantial in some areas -- where county and city employees differ.

Pay study

The first and perhaps easiest area to spot an immediate difference in city and county benefits regards a pay study conducted by the city in 2007 that issued recommendations that city leaders have planned to implement in three phases. That study recommended pay adjustments based an analysis of comparable jobs. The first phase, which was implemented in January 2009, brought salaries up to what the study recommended to be the minimal pay levels for each position. According to Assistant City Manager Wes Smith, 180 employees were affected by that change.

If the current proposed FY 2011 budget is passed, the city will implement Phase II of that pay study, which will adjust the salaries of roughly half the city's work force based primarily on tenure, experience and other factors.

That, in effect, means that some city employees will be getting a raise, while others, who had their pay adjusted during the first phase of implementing the study in 2008, won't see any adjustments.

That change will also further broaden the gulf between the salaries of city employees and county employees who do the same type of work.

The third phase is still under consideration and likely won't be implemented within the next budget year, but would establish pay-for-performance policies that would incorporate merit pay raises annually.

Insurance costs

The second major disparity will come in the form of insurance benefits, as the county seeks to crawl out of $1 million hole caused by premiums that weren't covering the cost of claims, Assistant County Administrator Mike McCoy said.

A high number of claims and a decision by Mutual of Omaha -- the company the county hired to cover claims that exceed $150,000 -- to bump its rate up by 25 to 30 percent have forced the county to take drastic measures to slow the increasing costs of health coverage.

Those drastic measures, as approved by the County Commission last week, translate to increases of anywhere from 23 to 68 percent on employee premiums beginning July 1.

The county is offering three programs, each having an option for a single employee, an employee and one dependent and an employee and his or her family.

Each option will see an increase of at least 23 percent, with the plans in Option 1 going up between 49 and 53 percent and plans in option 2 going up between 64 and 68 percent, according to information provided by McCoy Thursday.

Additionally, the county, which pays a significant portion of each employee's premium, is trying to adjust that percentage downward to a goal of a 75/25 split, McCoy said.

As currently approved, the county's percentage will lower to 77 percent, with employees picking up 23 percent.

In actual dollars, the cheapest plan on the cheapest option will cost employees an additional $24. By contrast, the most expensive plan on the most expensive option will cost an employee an additional $185.

While commissioners did approve the hike, they also asked Crowdis and staff to continue to look for more affordable price packages for employees, and McCoy said the county is making price comparisons to make sure they are getting the best deal.

The hike will likely come at the same time county employees will begin an unpaid leave policy that will make all of nine of their existing holidays unpaid ones and will force many to have to take three additional unpaid days during the year. That is expected to cost employees 4.6 percent of their pay.

On the city's end, employees will also have to pay more for their insurance, but the picture is less bleak.

Smith said the city has anticipated the need for a 7 percent increase in premiums to keep it in line with growing costs, but to stay ahead of the curve, officials have already boosted premiums by 3.5 percent this year and will raise them again by 3.5 percent next year "so that the increase is more palatable and easier to cope with."

In all, Smith said the city has experienced a $3 million savings over the last two years after it and the Water, Gas & Light Commission pulled out of a multi-government plan that included Dougherty County.

The city instead shopped around and hired Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia to be its third-party administrator and, while Phoebe Putney Health System is the city's preferred provider, Palmyra Medical Center has offered discounts that equal "in-network" costs to employees, further saving the city money, Smith said.

In sharing the cost-savings numbers with the City Commission this week, Finance Director Kris Newton said the city is researching the possibility of creating a wellness program for employees to help further reduce claims. She said the city's goal is to ultimately create a wellness clinic with the cost savings.

The city will not impose furloughs on its employees this year, although if revenues don't increase by the end of the next fiscal year, furloughs may be on the table for city workers.