The proposed health insurance changes for Independence city employees and retirees have produced plenty of uproar – enough so that City Manager Zach Walker indicated that not all those proposals will happen.
Walker proposed a series of changes to address a projected $3.6 million shortfall in the general fund of the 2019-20 fiscal year budget, which the City Council will vote on next month. All told, the changes could save the city $7 million annually, Walker said.
In addition to declining sales tax revenue, Walker said the shortball is “largely due to the cost of doing business. It costs money to run a city.”
With council chambers packed Monday, a slew of employees, retirees and citizens told the council during the public hearing for the budget that the changes shouldn't go forward as proposed – lest the city do more harm down the road if veteran employees work longer than they would prefer and future prospective employees shy away.
Employee premiums are scheduled to go up 8 percent, which after four years of no increases hasn't caused much grumbling and the city has an 80-20 split with employees on premiums.
The budget also calls for:
• Shifting the split for retirees age 55 to 65 from 80-20 to 50-50 over the course of three years.
• Bidding the coverage for post-65 retirees to Blue KC for group Medicare coverage.
• Encouraging employees to shift from Plan 1 to a higher-deductible Plan 2 that would also include a city-funded health savings account of $1,000.
• Shifting the StayWell clinic to a third-party provider.
Firefighter Michael Veit said that if some colleagues feel the need to postpone retirements, the city will have more injury risks – and workman's comp claims – on its hands.
“We don't sit behind a desk; we beat our bodies up protecting this city,” Veit said
When it comes to dealing with a drugged-up suspect, retired police officer Mike Johann said, “You don't want a 65-year-old man out there fighting these guys.”
Employee Jill Clark said the plan shift would not be good for her as a single mother with a special-needs daughter.
“A health savings account does not help with her special needs.” she said. “I'm not the only city employee that has a special-needs child; we are still going to have to pay everything out of pocket.”
Johann, who often provides security at council meetings as a reserve cop, said he's seen some municipal court employees crying about the potential changes and added that good benefits are a reason he stayed with the city for his career rather than jump to a different agency.
“They can't afford it; this isn't feasible for the lower-paid employees,” Johann said. “The higher-paid ones, they can absorb it.”
Firefighter Jeremy Kenyon said the proposed change could be financially ruinous for his family with five children.
“Each one of those dollars in those proposed health-care cuts represents real people,” he said. “We love our city, we love our neighborhood.”
“You are writing the story for the future,” Kenyon said, referring to the city's new branding slogan “A Great American Story.” “What will you write?
“Please choose somewhere else to get your numbers to balance the budget.”
Police Detective Steve Cook, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said he appreciates the efforts to add more officers, but slicing health-care benefits would risk undoing that. Officers could go elsewhere for similar benefits and likely not deal with as much crime.
“What's my motivation to stay?” he said some would ask. “We can only do so much with what we have, and you're not going to get more officers if you don't have something to offer them. If we lose more, we'll hit a crisis point.”
Former Council Member Lucy Young said she and her husband chose to settle in Independence partly because of the good city employees, some of whom knew they wouldn't make as much money as they could elsewhere but knew they would receive good benefits.
Young said the city needs to look at health care as the same type of expense as a citizen does a utility bill – “You have to pay it.”
Stacy Wagstaff, wife of near-fatally wounded police officer Tom Wagstaff, said public safety employees risk their lives for the city because they believe in their job.
“We just ask that you think about showing them how much we appreciate them,” she said.
Retired firefighter Chris Rohrs said retirees simply want to ask “for what is rightfully ours; what you, our employers promised us. We're not here to ask for more.”
Health care for retirees, he said, is not fat in the budget, and the city needs to stop creating new expenses it can't afford.
During the open enrollment period, Walker said, “We have an obligation to inform and educate about the benefits of HSA, but that is a great personal choice.”
Walker said he's looking to alter that employee proposal, particularly to avoid a monthly cost increase of 68 percent as some feared. Likewise, with the 55-65 retiree group that doesn't yet qualify for Medicare, “we might pull back on that proposal.”
The proposed change for Medicare-age reitrees still appears worthwhile, he said, after further discussion with the city's health-care consultant, Lockton, he still believes the group plan for Medicare retirees can offer “substantial savings to both the city and retiree” due to volume buying power.
“We wanted to make sure nobody lost insurance coverage,” he said.
Walker said scaling back some of the recommendations would mean the same for some city initiatives in various departments this year. Having none of the changes, he warned, could lead to notable personnel, service and facility cuts.
“We will scale back and redirect some recommendations we have made,” Walker said. “The budget process is a very fluid process.”