By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Jim Cissell offered the county $2.1 million Monday - money he says administrators should use to help county employees offset the higher cost of health benefits they can expect to pay next year.
In a two-page letter to county commissioners, Mr. Cissell says the money is "excess funds" accumulated in a restricted account by clerk's office employees, responsible for the sale of auto, boat and other titles, in the Auto Title Division.
"As these funds were generated through the efficient management and hard work of the employees, I think it is highly appropriate that these funds be used to help see that the county employees do not receive a pay decrease as a result of having to pick up 100 percent of the increase in health costs," Mr. Cissell wrote.
Hamilton County Administrator David Krings called the proposal "an interesting policy decision." But he said ultimate distribution of those funds is up to the county commissioners, not Mr. Cissell.
"Surpluses ... can go back into the general fund," he said.
Double-digit increases in 2003 health care costs are expected nationwide because of the way health care is delivered, according to Illinois-based Hewitt Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in human relations and benefits issues.
In Cincinnati, employers and employees are expected to see an estimated increase of 13 percent.
Mr. Cissell's proposal comes in the midst of county budget planning for 2003.
Fiscal constraints have left some wondering whether there will be enough money for employee raises next year.
Believing that there won't be, Mr. Cissell said employees, depending upon the kind of coverage they have, could expect to pay anywhere from $106 to $964 more than they paid for health insurance in 2002.
Those hardest hit, in the event there is no raise, will be the lowest paid county workers, he said.
Mr. Krings was quick to say that the budget has not yet been balanced and that nothing has been finalized.
"The first thing we have to do is to get the budget balanced and what (Mr. Cissell) is proposing in and of itself does not get the budget balanced," he said.
Gary Berger, director of personnel for the county, said employees choose their insurance from among three plans that offer comparable services at competitive rates. Re-enrollment began Monday and will continue until the end of the week, he said, adding that the county anticipates paying about $4 million for its share of the expected insurance hikes.
"We are, and have been, trying to get employees to move out of these more expensive plans because they really aren't using the benefits there," Mr. Berger added. "We have employees paying for things they're not using."
It is incorrect to assume that employees will see a major decrease in their paychecks as a result of these hikes, he said.
"You've got to consider that all of our deductions are taken on a pre-tax basis," Mr. Berger said. "The employee does not see the full 100 percent impact out of their take-home pay. The deduction is taken before state and federal taxes are applied."
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