- Paris Flash
- Real Estate
By JEFF PARISH
Lamar County residents and employees had plenty to say about the tax increase and insurance changes commissioners were considering Friday.
“You’re not just saving the taxpayers, because all of us who work here are taxpayers, too,” said Joel Witherspoon, the county’s network administrator. “With it in the budget the way it is now, you’re going to crush people.”
The commissioners voted Friday to increase the tax rate 2 cents, largely to fund $729,290 added to the budget for medical insurance costs for dependents of employees. Under the budget as proposed by County Judge Chuck Superville, county employees would have had to bear the entire cost of their dependants on insurance.
Which several speaking during the public hearing said would not necessarily be such a bad idea, since most private sector employees have to pay a majority, if not all, of their dependant care costs.
“Out there in the real world, people have to pay for dependant care,” resident Richard Lee said. “We don’t have a lot going for us in Lamar County. We have cheap land, and we have a predictable tax rate.”
If the county starts fluctuating that tax rate year to year, it may drive away potential employers, Lee warned.
Chris Dux complimented the commissioners’ desire to help their employees.
“But I would also remind you that you were elected to represent the citizens of Lamar County,” he said. “Last time I checked, that’s about 50,000 people.”
County employees may also be residents and taxpayers, but given the number of people on insurance, that’s about .6 percent of the entire county population.
“If you don’t make a tough decision which corrects a problem you face today, you are passing a baton on to your successors that is even tough to deal with,” Dux said. “Take the leadership role you were given and solve the problem today.”
Some were even more pointed in their comments.
“The leak in Lamar County and the cost of running Lamar County is right there,” Hack Blankenship said, pointing at the commissioners. “It’s like a cancer. It’s a malignancy that never quits growing.”
Deputy Ken Johnson noted that he is a taxpayer and county resident.
“I have also given 27 years to the county,” he said. “I do not want my benefits cut out from underneath me at the end of my career.”
A round of applause greeted his statement.
Lamar County has 178 employees and 153 dependants on its insurance plan – which means about 53 percent have dependants insured through the county. And that translates to higher pay for about half of the employees, Superville said.
The county recently sought bids for a new insurance company. No one would even offer a bid, forcing the county to remain with United Healthcare at a 24 percent increase.
“We opened a stack of bids this tall,” the county judge said, holding his hands a foot apart. “They won’t bid on us.”
The Texas Association of Counties said it could not offer a bid “due to extreme and ongoing high claims.” Lamar County’s loss ratio is 121 percent, he said. That means for every dollar collected in premiums, the insurance company pays out $1.21. Most companies prefer to spend about 80 cents per dollar collected.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Lawrence Malone said he talked to TAC and found that it had members in its insurance program with higher loss ratios – and their costs rose about 7 percent compared with Lamar County’s 24 percent.
It would be crazy for Lamar County to continue with United Healthcare, Witherspoon said. The company has to be making money from the county to keep offering insurance coverage, he said.
“To go against the family is just pathetic,” he said. “It’s almost like you’re saying, ‘How dare you have a family? How dare you use our insurance?’”
Dux suggested appointing a special committee of taxpayers and businessmen to look at insurance options before the next budget. He said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has opened a lot of doors for finding individual plans as cheap, or cheaper than, as group plans offered by most employers.
Lee said with the low salaries most county employees have, their dependants would likely qualify for the state’s CHIPS medical insurance program for children.
“That ought to embarrass you, that the county employees qualify for welfare,” one woman called out from the audience.
Lee said some residents had looked into the possibility of a recall election against the commissioners after last year’s budget cycle, but found it wasn’t a possibility.
“I’m going to go against the flow here,” resident Doug Morris said. “I don’t like it. I’m against it. But I see the justification.”
It’s not fair to take a benefit away from employees that they’ve had for years, Morris said. He questioned whether the county had done enough to find a new insurance provider.
“My only question is what is your plan for 2013 and 2014 when the county has to declare bankruptcy?” he asked. “That’s where you’re taking this county.”