Buckson making another try to alter coverage for new hires

Two months after winning a fight to increase pension contributions for newly hired employees, Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Eric Buckson has reintroduced another proposed change to the benefits structure for future county retirees.

For the third time, Buckson has proposed implementing a sliding scale for retiree health insurance payments, a measure he says will save county taxpayers money in the long run.

The Republican commissioner said health care costs are spiraling upward and if Levy Court doesn’t scale back its benefits, it will create a crisis in the years to come.

“The health care cost for county personnel has gone up about 400% in the last 10 to 12 years; we’ve got to take a look at it,” Buckson said. “What I’m looking at is long-term liability, this [proposal] specifically speaks only to new hires.”

Currently, the county pays 100% of a retiree’s health insurance premiums.

According to Buckson’s proposal, county employees with fewer years of service prior to retirement would be responsible for paying larger shares of their own health insurance premiums.

Retirees with 20 or more years of service would receive full coverage. Those with 15 to 20 years would have to pay 25% of their premiums. Those with 10 to 15 years of service would be responsible for 50% of their premiums. Employees with fewer than 10 years on the job would pay 75% of their premiums. Retirees with fewer than 5 years of service would not be eligible for health insurance.

Levy Court will discuss the plan at its Feb. 22 business meeting.

Buckson said the tiered system doesn’t deny benefits to loyal employees who deserve them.

“Taxpayers can understand if you put in 25, 30 years then retire, the benefits would be in full. It’s difficult to rationalize [working] five years with the county and essentially having 100% full coverage,” he said. “We can’t afford it.”

When Buckson last floated this idea, June of 2010, only one other commissioner joined him in voting for it.

Commissioner George “Jody” Sweeney said he’s ready to support the plan again.

“Employees themselves are already one of the biggest expenses of any government or organization, and within that health care is one of the biggest expenses,” he said. “As long as you’re an employee you get very, very good health care benefits; this just makes it more for loyal employees.”

Beyond Sweeney, Buckson may have a hard time drumming up the votes he needs to pass the measure.

Even though in December Buckson succeeded in passing an ordinance to increase pension contributions for newly hired personnel, other commissioners don’t seem ready to go with his health care proposal.

“I’m not clear at this juncture that the overall objective will actually save the taxpayers a lot of money,” said Levy Court President P. Brooks Banta. “More importantly, I think that many of our employees are at the lower end of the pay scale. It could end up very easily that their entire [pension check] would go for medical benefits, which would leave them in a very serious state of affairs.”

Levy Court Vice President Allan Angel said he’s not necessarily convinced that the county has a huge problem with rising retiree health care costs.

Approximately 10 years ago, the county created a trust fund to pay for retiree benefits in anticipation of accounting rules changes that eventually required governments to do so.

By getting a jump on saving for future retirees’ health care, Kent County’s post-employment benefits funding plan now ranks among the top in the nation.

“We became proactive and took care of it; I don’t see a change that we need to do right now,” Angel said. “I know what Mr. Buckson is trying to do and I commend him for his effort, but at this present time, the way we’re working with our money, we’re a model watchdog.”

County Personnel Director Alan Kujala confirmed the benefits fund’s stable footing, and said he’s not in favor of Buckson’s proposal since it leans heaviest on older employees who haven’t worked for the county very long.

“I’m largely concerned about the high cost of health insurance and the possibility that older employees that are hired, employees in their 50s, would essentially have to work into their 70s before they could be eligible for full retiree health insurance,” he said.

Kujala added that Buckson’s proposal likely would make it more difficult for the county to recruit more experienced employees for key positions.

“We are fortunate to attract employees in their 50s and even 60s, and it would essentially be impossible for them to ever achieve” full health insurance benefits, he said.

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com