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Bingen opts not to cut employee health benefits

Mayor, council agree to drop their supplemental insurance

Faced with substantial cuts to their medical insurance benefits plans, several employees of the city of Bingen turned out at last week's City Council meeting.

With virtually no advance notice to the affected employees, the city had proposed changes to the employees' medical insurance plans. The move would have taken the employees from a "no deductible and a co-pay for most office visits" to a $500 deductible per individual. New payroll deductions would also be required from each employee to maintain the program.

City officials said a shortfall of approximately $8,000 had to be made up in the 2005 budget.

Bingen currently has five full-time and two part-time workers. The city's employees currently do not pay for their medical coverage.

Mike Robarge was one of the Bingen employees who attended the Dec. 7 meeting. Robarge manages the Dallesport wastewater facility, which is operated by the city of Bingen through a contractual arrangement with Klickitat County.

Speaking before the council's final vote, Robarge said he believed the proposed changes were unfair.

"I've been with the city since June 2003, and was told this past Friday my benefits were going to change," Robarge explained. "I'd never heard anything about cuts to the employees or myself, so it came as a shock. You've effectively just given me a 75-cent per hour decrease in pay. Of course, that concerns me."

After hearing from Robarge and other employees who would be impacted, the council came up with an alternative plan. To narrow the fiscal shortfall, the council instead opted -- with a 5-0 vote -- to cancel a supplemental health insurance package through AFLAC that covers the council members and the mayor. That policy was geared to provide for intensive care and cancer care coverage. Terminating the policy will save the city about $3,600.

After taking that action, the council voted unanimously to maintain the current package of benefits for all city employees through 2005.

Reductions to the benefits package for city workers had been approved in the previous week by the City Council's two-person Budget Committee, and was up for final consideration by the full five-member council at its Dec. 7 meeting.

A memo to members of the City Council explained that changes in the employees' benefits package would save the city approximately $8,000 in 2005.

Before the vote was taken, council member Randy Anderson, who serves on the Budget Committee with councilor Laura Mann, said the city needed to do something to come up with revenue.

"We didn't get the sales tax increase," Anderson noted. "We're sorry we have to do this, but it's going on all across the country."

Robarge pointed out that the salary he receives is approximately $9,000 less than the national average for a person serving in his capacity. He noted that the medical and other benefits helped offset the low pay.

"This job is low-paying for the industry already," Robarge explained. "I know it's hard to compare with other communities, but the national average is still the national average. If there was some fairness with wages versus benefits, I'd be happy to pay for increased insurance costs."

Robarge added that, as a department manager, he wanted the opportunity to help recommend where savings could be made in his department, rather than finding out about benefits cuts for employees a few days before the council was to vote.

"I wasn't asked about the budget, which I deal with on a daily basis. I made myself available, and was not contacted," Robarge said.

"We cut everything else we could," Anderson responded. "It's a hard decision. It's not something we want to do, but your insurance packages are way above the norm for employees. We're the only city of this size in the state that pays 100 percent of insurance."

"This is already a very lean budget for 2005," explained City Clerk Jan Brending. "There is nothing new in this budget. No new projects, no new computers, trucks, software. It's very difficult to identify where we could make more cuts."

Council member Betty Barnes said she understood the frustration being expressed by Robarge and the other employees.

"When you hired on, you took the job based on what was being offered," Barnes said. "Good benefits draw good people to stay here. But with the rising costs of health insurance for everyone, it's only normal for the Budget Committee to look at this as a way to save money."

"Getting 100 percent is a dying breed," agreed council member Jeanette Fentie. "No one gets that any more. That's not to say you don't deserve it, but no one is getting it."

Fentie suggested making the cuts to the employees' benefits package, but revisiting the issue in six months if the city's fiscal picture improved.

Mayor Brian Prigel said he hoped the city could be a leader in the way it treats its employees.

"It's true we have a good benefits package, and we need to be aware of what surrounding areas are doing. But I'd like to believe we can be a leader to some degree, and be on the good side of what is average," Prigel said. "To be fair to the employees, if this issue needs to be discussed, there needs to be a warning this is coming about. We may have to make this change, but to be fair it needs to be done separate from the budget."

Mann suggested that members of the City Council could eliminate their supplemental insurance coverage through AFLAC as a way to save a portion of the budget shortfall.

Barnes made a motion to have the city drop the AFLAC program, and that was approved. Then the motion to leave the employees' benefits alone through 2005 was approved.

After the meeting, Robarge said he was pleased with the council's decision, but hoped members would strive to include city employees in decisions that affect them in the future.

"I'd like to be more involved, and I hope employees can be brought more into the loop," he said. "I was happy with the way the council received us, and I hope the channels of communication were opened. I'd like to find ways we could have all the service and not make any cuts. My goal is to make everyone happy, from the ratepayers right on through to the City Council."

To raise additional revenue, the council agreed to again consider boosting the local sales tax by one-half of one percent in June.

On Friday, Mayor Prigel cautioned that cuts to employee benefits would probably need to be considered again.

"We can get away with this for a year or two," Prigel said. "We have a budget crisis looming. We're not in as bad a shape as other cities, but we are getting squeezed, and we'll have to cut expenses."


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