County commissioners look for ways to trim budget

OKEECHOBEE — County employees’ free use of the Urgent Care Center as an employee clinic may be cut from the 2016/2017 county budget.

At their Aug. 25 Okeechobee County Commissioners considered the budget changes that had been discussed in public workshops in July and August.

The commissioners have set a target reduction in the ad valorem taxes of 2 percent below the rollback rate.

The rollback rate is the millage required to raise the same amount of money as budgeted the previous year, but using the current year’s property tax base.

One mill equals $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of property value.

With a 2 percent below rollback rate, the county millage for the Fiscal Year 2016/2017 would be 8.1354 mills.

County budget director Corey Wheeler said the county asked the department heads and constitutional officers to cut their budgets. She said they also considered some expected increase in income, such as a projected increase in the Okee-Tantie boat slip rentals, and increase in grant funding.

The county’s proposed budget is $88.6 million.

Looking at the proposed budget so far, commissioners determined they needed to cut another $360,000 in order to get the tax millage down to 8.1354 mills.

The budget includes a 3 percent increase for employees, and the commissioners agreed they want to keep that in the budget.

The sheriff’s office had initially proposed a 5 percent increase, but cut it to 3 percent in their revised budget.

Some increase in the sheriff’s budget expenses were offset by increase in grant revenue. Overall, the sheriff’s proposed budget has an increase of $4,040.

Commission Chairman Frank Irby noted the sheriff’s budget includes an additional four, full-time positions as well as and one additional part-time position.

He suggested the sheriff might want to reduce the number of new hires and instead spend money replacing patrol cars.

“After getting the report on the age of your vehicles, 50 of your cars have 100,000 miles on them, another 40 or so have 80,000 miles on them,” said Chairman Irby. “If you don’t start replacing them, it’s going to be critical.
“I suggest you go back and reconsider that, and maybe start replacing five vehicles a year,” he suggested.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper noted one of the new positions is for a nurse at the jail. He said that position is needed.

Some savings achieved in 2016/2017 budget by delaying projects to the next fiscal year. Renovation of a fire station was pushed to 2018.

Commissioner Terry Burroughs said he is not interested in using reserves to balance the budget, so they have to find another $360,000 in savings. The budget plan calls for 25 percent in reserves in the general fund.

“There are $360,000 in expenses we are going to wring out of here,” he said.

Commissioner Culpepper suggested there might be some projects that could be delayed. He said there are some things in the works that should mean the county will be in better shape in the future.

“I am for the 3 percent (raise for employees) but the expenditures have to be cut,” said Commissioner Margaret Helton.

“We have all these things done the pipeline,” she said.

“We want to give employees a raise, but we should always keep expenditures down.”

The budget director pointed out that all of the capital expenditures are cut by host fees, and those are not part of the operating budget.

“If we were to cut capital projects (to balance the budget), we would be funding operating expenses from host fees, which is something the board did not want to do,” she said.

Chairman Irby noted that the projected budget figures show an estimated $1.7 million increase in personnel costs.

“I would suggest there is room in that line item to do something,” he said.

“Capital is a one-time cost. It upgrades your resource. It upgrades your equipment,” he said.

Ms. Wheeler said the budget includes a 3 percent increase for employees.

Chairman Irby said the county’s health insurance costs are going up. He said they had hoped that offering the health clinic would reduce the county’s insurance claims, but that was not the case.

“The employee health plan is a significant benefit,” he said.

He noted the cost the county is paying per employee to have the clinic available “is almost equivalent to the cost increase we had in our health insurance.”

He suggested that if the county wants to continue do anything with employee clinic, “that you would cancel your current contract and really decide if you want to do that, and look at the insurance plan you have.”

He said offering the health clinic should decrease the cost of insurance.

“I think we basically have a Cadillac insurance plan and we’ve added on top of that a very nice benefit of employee health clinic.

“We’ve kind of doubled up on that,” said Chairman Irby.

“If you want to reinstate it, come up with an insurance plan that is much lower cost, covering catastrophic costs,” he suggested.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t consider a clinic,” he said. “Consider a clinic with a different insurance plan.”

County administrator Robbie Chartier said it should be data driven.

“I think we need some more education in how this is supposed to work,” she said.

Mrs. Chartier said according to survey of county employees, those who used it were generally people who had colds and flus.

“We pay a monthly fee per employee whether they use it or not,” she said.

According to the survey, only about a third of the employees used the health clinic.

She said most of the health insurance claims were for things that people could not use the clinic for, such as treatments for heart disease, cancer, and other medical issues that require a specialist.

“What drives health insurance is catastrophic losses,” said Chairman Irby.

“The routine office visits don’t cost a lot of money compared to the $300,000, $400,000 to a million dollar losses.

The four commissioners agreed they would like to cut the health clinic from the 2016/2017 budget.

County staff was asked to come back with budget revisions at the Sept. 8 county commission meeting.

A public hearing on the budget is set for Sept. 13 at 5:01 p.m.

A representative from Treasure Coast Medical Associates asked the board to clarify that county employees can still use the Urgent Care Center, until the contract is terminated.

Also, at the end of the agreement, the county employees can still use the Urgent Care clinic, but they would be responsible for the co-pay.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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