Retirees ask for protection as county considers benefit cuts

BUDGET QUESTIONS: With an estimated $1.7 million budget shortfall on the horizon, interim Buncombe County Manager George Wood suggested that the county consider reducing the cost of certain fringe benefits to plug the gap. Photo by David Floyd

A handful of former Buncombe County employees had a message for commissioners during their regular meeting on Sept. 18: “Please consider the retirees.”

Facing a projected budget gap of about $1.7 million for FY 2020, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners heard a proposal by interim County Manager George Wood that’s intended to get the county closer to a balanced budget. Along with drastically curtailing a policy that allows county employees to sell unused leave back to the county, the proposal would replace the county’s three employee health care plans with two new plans.

Three Buncombe County retirees expressed concern about how a change to the county’s health care offerings would affect them and their peers.

“We worked for the county not because it had the best pay but because of good benefits,” said retiree Chris Winslow, a retired sheriff’s department employee who was also a candidate for Buncombe County sheriff in this year’s Democratic primary. Retirees, he stressed, don’t benefit from automatic pay raises or promotions. “What we receive from retirement each month is all that we will receive until Social Security starts. If it’s still available.”

Rosemary Kuykendall-Rice, a retired detective in the sheriff’s office, said many former Buncombe County employees have accepted early retirement, a decision they were told would save county government resources. “We didn’t do that job because of the money,” she said. “We did it because we wanted to and we wanted to protect the county. And now we’re hoping that y’all will protect us.”

Compared to peer counties and cities, Buncombe County has the richest health care benefits, said Curt Euler, director of employee benefits and risk management. “That is not a bad thing,” Euler told commissioners. “I think that’s something that we want to be a leader in. That’s the main reason why people come to work for the county; that’s the main reason people stay with the county for as long as they do.”

While he believes it’s important for the county to preserve its benefits to the extent possible, Euler said the county also needs to be realistic about its financial health.

“The health plans’ cost are increasing at an exponential rate, and we don’t have the revenues to make up the deficits,” he said. In a Sept. 11 memo to commissioners, Wood estimated county expenses associated with health insurance claims would increase by 10 percent, or $2.7 million, in FY 2020, based on recent trends.

HEALTHY CHOICES?: This table shows how the cost structure of the county’s health care plans would change if commissioners decide to replace the three current health care plans with two new plans. Image courtesy of Buncombe County

Of the county’s three plans, the standard plan provides the most generous benefits: After an employee meets his or her deductible, the county pays 95 percent of the cost of medical claims and the employee pays 5 percent. Wood said comparable counties don’t offer a similar plan because of its high cost. About 54 percent of Buncombe County employees and retirees are on this plan, Wood said, but it has been closed to new hires since 2009.

“We simply cannot afford this plan,” Wood wrote in the memo, “nor can we justify to our taxpayers keeping it.”

The two plans proposed by Wood would both have an 80/20 cost ratio. One, the Consumer Directed Plan, would combine a high deductible with a health savings account, and the other would use Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina’s preferred provider organization.

To encourage employees to pick the Consumer Directed Plan, Wood said the plan would charge lower premiums, and the county would deposit $1,000 in employees’ health savings accounts annually.

Euler said that in 2017, Buncombe County paid 95 percent of its employees’ health care costs, excluding premiums. Similar employers that use the Blue Cross Blue Shield network pay on average 86 percent of health care costs, leaving 14 percent to employees.

“Our employees are paying a lot less than other comparable government agencies with Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s book of business,” Euler said.

Adopting the two proposed plans, Euler said, would bring the percentage the county pays on employee health care down to 87 percent — close to the 86 percent average cost share of comparable government agencies that use the Blue Cross network. It would also save the county an estimated $1.24 million.

Winslow acknowledged that the county needs to change.

“But look after your retirees,” he said, “the ones that stayed with Buncombe County for those benefits.”

Commissioners did not vote on the proposal on Sept. 18.

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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16 thoughts on “Retirees ask for protection as county considers benefit cuts

  1. Lulz

    LOL but you’re taking money from people who have no benefits to pay these extravagant perks. Buncombe is the leader in benefits but it also has a spending problem. And is also dull of corruption. And if the former employees are young enough to retire but not old enough for social security, then you should get a job like the rest of us. Sorry the county mismanaged the money but don’t go looking to taxpayers to bail you out.

  2. don

    Lord save us from the pensioned retirees who are so very entitled despite getting well paid and cared for during their long secure employment with the county, despite their claims to the contrary. We can’t afford this foolishness much longer…. here in Buncombe County or elsewhere. Has to change. Period.

    • luther blissett

      I’m sure there were lots of people a hundred years ago saying

      “Lord save us from the workers who demand weekends.”
      “Lord save us from the workers who want a minimum wage.”
      “Lord save us from the workers who want basic safety standards in their workplaces.”

      Today’s conservative blue-collar champions seem to demand that every worker should be stiffed as much as them.

      (Again, it’s an argument for universal Medicare and more generous Social Security.)

      • Lulz

        Because government workers with fat pensions who retire at 55 should be coddled til death while private citizens have to work into their 60’s and 70’s. And of course people will settle for 75% of their paychecks taxed to pay for it. Loony tunes.

        Of course government cronies don’t steal and aren’t corrupt. And of course they should be the final say so in how someone who works should spend their money. After all, you don’t seem to realize that 50% of the country supports the other half. And have to be in sheer denial of the fact that the only thing moronic pipe dreams will bring in the end is misery.

        • luther blissett

          “Man whose hand was chopped off working at sawmill demands government workers lose a hand.”

  3. Adrian

    It’s blue cross blue shield getting the bailout Lulz, not the county employees

    • Lulz

      Can’t afford it? Welcome to the real world. Have lived through years of rubber stamp tax increases for absolutely nothing of value. RECORD TAX REVENUE taken in by both the county and the city. Not even questioning of the need to continually raise them by leftist loons. Sorry but maybe they shouldn’t waste money on incentivizing breweries, special interests, and BS. And they damn sure should learn to save money. Other people actually work for it. Not you and not them.

  4. don

    thanks Luther. I agree… to some extent. Please note that your quoted remarks all begin with “Lord save us from the workers…. “. Please also note these are all workers…. not those who retired ….some early …. almost all well off. I do agree with your sentiments regarding Medicare and social security…. our only real safety nets. Common sense needs to prevail here at some point soon. We would hope and think so anyway.

    • luther blissett

      The race to the bottom only benefits those who’ve kept wages down and steadily eroded benefits for 40 years. Divide-and-conquer buys them yachts and third homes.

      • Dorothy Parker

        Why, yes, luther. Coincidentally, like Bernie Sanders did a few weeks after the DNC convention in 2016. (wink, wink)
        A $700,000 lakefront property, he bought. His 3rd home.
        It pays to be a socialist in America if you hitch your wagon to the “right people”.

        • luther blissett

          Ah, a new variation on the “if climate change is real why does Al Gore fly in planes?”

          That’s what you’re left with when you have no response to forty years of stagnant wages and eroded benefits during which the wealth of the nation has been siphoned off by the executive and investor class.

          • B.E. Vickroy

            Luther — You say “…no response to forty years of stagnant wages and eroded benefits …” I’m wondering if you have ever called those who want to restrict both legal and illegal immigration for an assimilating time, RACIST, XENOPHOBES, or UNAMERICAN? [“we ARE a nation of immigrants”]

            Consider the 1986 amnesty for 3 million illegals, which was supposed to halt illegal entry, but by latest data, there are now 22 mil. illegals here.

            Consider that since the 1965 immigration law, 59 million immigrants have come to the US. At present rate by 2065 it will reach 103 mil. [US pop. will reach 441 mil]

            Consider that the buying power for the average worker has only increased by about $2 since 1965. “stagnant wages & eroded benefits.” Think millions of mostly poor, uneducated immigrants, who will work for a dime on the dollar for an American’s job are a contributing factor? And insult-to-injury, it is THEN claimed that they only take work that Americans WON’T do.

            I agree that there is ”no response to stagnant wages”, but only because of the cacophony from open-border-ites – SI SE PUEDE [yes we can] ** WE ARE A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS ** GIVE ME YOUR TIRED HUDDLED MASSES ** XENOPHOBE [fear of the ‘other’] ** RACIST [hatred for any color other than while], “…I was a stranger & you welcomed me [Matt. 25:35”] etc. etc. Which DO affect Congressional NON-RESPONSE..

            Joe & Jane Average HAVE complained, but were out-shouted by the media & special interest led false impression of grass roots pressure. In 1994 60% of Californians passed proposition 187 to prohibit illegal immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other service. That vote was thrown out by the courts who claimed it was “unconstitutional”.
            In 1975 TX citizens attempted to curtail a free public education for illegal aliens, but in Plyler v Doe the Supreme Court said no-can-do.

            So, again I ask, have you ever looked down on the humanity or intelligence or motives of those who want nothing more than a ”breathing period” of slower immigration? That question is me COMPLAINING about wage-suppression … and BTW felt most keenly in Black communities.

          • luther blissett

            That’s just more divide and conquer. If you look where the money has gone over the past forty years — and this applies broadly to a lot of developed countries — then it’s not to immigrants, legal or illegal. The rich are very happy to take 11 cookies from the plate and leave you to fight over who gets the last cookie.

      • Enlightened Enigma

        luther you are just plain delusional … people who work hard and PLAN WELL above Social Insecurity are the ones you HATE!

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