City seeks insurance answers during budget process

Published 12:02 am Tuesday, September 1, 2015

NATCHEZ — A more than $200,000 spike in employee insurance costs has city officials crunching numbers in an attempt to save money for the upcoming fiscal year.

City officials and aldermen met for more than three hours with department heads at a work session Monday to discuss the budget for fiscal year 2015-2016, which begins Oct. 1.

Each city department is facing an increase in their operating budgets because of increased health insurance premium costs.

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The total increase because of insurance costs is approximately $229,220.

Approximately $91,000 of that total is because of the addition of 13 new employees to the city’s payroll.

The board of aldermen recently voted to borrow approximately $350,000 to cover its payroll costs through the end of the fiscal year, which concludes Sept. 30.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said after the meeting that she could account for a handful or so new employees, but not 13. Because the board of aldermen does not vote to approve the hiring of new employees, Arceneaux-Mathis said it is difficult for the aldermen to keep track of new hires.

“People are cropping up in different offices, and maybe they were part-time and then the next thing you know they’re hired,” Arceneaux-Mathis said. “That’s part of the problem.”

Budgets for the departments city official discussed Monday — planning, police, fire, information technology and municipal court — are projected to finish the year within budget, Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard said.

While Dillard commended those department heads for staying within their budget, much of the meeting was dominated with discussion about insurance.

The source from which funding will come to cover the increased insurance costs is unknown at this point.

“Right now, we don’t know where we are going to get the money,” Arceneaux-Mathis said.

The board and the mayor, Arceneaux-Mathis said, have taken the position that they do not want to raise taxes in order to cover increased insurance costs.

The city switched from being self-insured to fully insured through United Healthcare, but officials are not convinced they got the best deal.

Ward 2 Alderman Rickey Gray said he has been working with contacts in other municipalities and insurance agents to explore other insurance options for the city.

Part of the problem, Gray said, is that the city only received two bids for health insurance, one from United Healthcare and the other from Humana, which the aldermen said was more than United.

The city pays approximately $588 per employee per month for its insurance premiums. That number will increase to $652 next year.

Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields pointed out that because the city’s premiums increased, the city actually did not budget enough for insurance in the current year.

Measures to offset increased costs could include raising the current $2,500 deductible for employees and/or increasing co-pays.

“That sounds good (for cutting costs), but it doesn’t to somebody making $8 or $9 an hour and they’re not getting any raises,” Gray said.

The aldermen did not discuss specifics of raising deductibles or changing co-pays for employees.

While searching for funds to cover insurance, the aldermen said they would be looking closely at ways to cut costs. The board has asked that department heads initially submit budgets without requested raises, so the aldermen can see operating costs without raises.

The city will also be looking into additional money it may be owed from Adams County, mainly from the county road and bridge fund. Dillard contends by state statute, the city is owed more than the approximately $54,000 it is paid each year by the county to maintain the more than 100 miles of road within the city limits.

The road and bridge fund, along with other funding for other items, such as the city and county interlocal fire agreement, comes up every year at the city’s budget discussions.

Another source of funding to offset insurance costs could come from the city’s $1 million annual casino lease payment. The city had planned to complete two cycles of street-paving projects this year.

“I just don’t think we are going to be able to do it,” Dillard said.

Although they will be looking to cut costs, Dillard said some new purchases would be essential to city operations, such as body cameras for the police department. The aldermen are hopeful Community Development Director James Johnston will locate a grant that will pay for at least a portion of the camera costs.

IT Director Ed Bowser said approximately $15,000 is budgeted for the city’s anticipated portion of the cameras.

Dillard said cameras on police officers’ uniforms and cars are needed to ensure the safety of officers and residents.

“We need those cameras,” Dillard said. “It doesn’t need to be on the backburner. We need those for the protection of our officers and our citizens.”

The police department’s proposed budget also included the purchase of six new patrol cars for approximately $125,000.

The police and fire departments will also have to deal with a decrease in funding from the E911 board, Police Chief Danny White said.

Dispatchers were previously given raises from E911 funding, White said, but the E911 board has said it will not cover future payments for the raises.

Arceneaux-Mathis said she was unsure how the E911 board could decide that since the raises were regular recurring payments.

Mayor Butch Brown, Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery were not present for Monday’s work session.

City officials will meet at 4 p.m. today in the City Hall boardroom to resume budget discussions.