Tooele • With cash flow evaporating in this sprawling county's budget, Tooele County commissioners voted Tuesday to change the structure of retiree medical benefits.
Speaking to a packed house, Commissioner Shawn Milne said they heard constituent concerns expressed two weeks ago and adjusted accordingly.
"What we were proposing at that time was that all retirees be obligated to pay for 25 percent of their medical coverage, [and] ceasing coverage on dental and life insurance," Milne said, "and that effective immediately for any remaining employee, that we cease what's called the Years of Service program."
The latter referred to a policy that for every five years an employee worked for the county, the county gave them one year free insurance coverage when they retire. That benefit only kicked in after 10 years of service.
The change enacted Tuesday would hold current retirees harmless and leave their insurance benefits as is, including any employees who retire by July 1.
"We foresee some folks that are eligible for retirement, taking that option," Milne said. However, for workers with less than 10 years of service, the county will discontinue its Years of Service program, he added.
Under the new policy approved Tuesday, those who have worked more than 10 years but delay retirement until after July 1, 2013 will Â receive $2,500 in cash for each five-year period up to 10 years ($5,000 total) and then an additional $500 for each subsequent year of service, starting with year 11. County employees who retire after July 1 will not be eligible for the county's insurance program.
"It would be paid out upon retirement from Tooele County," Milne said. These costs would be fixed as a specific budgetary expense, he added, as opposed to post-retirement benefits that could rise to $9.8 million dollars for all current employees under the county's former policy.
While that amount would likely not be paid out in one budget year, that kind of cash would be hard to find, Milne added.
Under the new policy, county employees will no longer accrue credits toward insurance premiums as of July 1, and employees who retire after that date will not be eligible to enroll in the county insurance program.
Representing the Utah Public Employees Association, Christy Cushing said they appreciated the opportunities for dialogue and the changes that had been made.
"The new policy, though not perfect, addresses many of the legal concerns and both the needs of the employees and the goals of the commission," Cushing said.
In related action, commissioners also voted unanimously to raise the amounts that elected officials must pay toward their insurance premiums so they would be on par with other county employees.
Commission Chairman Bruce Clegg said this action would alleviate an existing inequity that "caught some by surprise."
"The reality was such that most elected officials . . . were paying about $55 less per paycheck than most of our employees," Clegg said.
Some in the audience knocked commissioners for not having the foresight to rein in spending much sooner. Over the past 18 months, Tooele County has had to trim $5.4 million or one-fourth of its general fund budget due to revenue shortfalls.
Since May 2012, the county also shed more than one-fourth of its workforce, dropping from 418 employees to the current 300.
"What they were promised when they were employed should be honored," Tooele resident Glen Walters said of the county's retirees, reasoning that generous insurance and retirement benefits have helped offset lower wages in the past.
"If that hadn't existed, maybe they wouldn't have worked for the county for so long," Walters said. "It's hard to get to retirement age and know you're taking it in the shorts."