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Medical benefit cutbacks pay off for Sonoma County

By BLEYS W. ROSE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A controversial move to save Sonoma County taxpayer dollars has reduced commitments for funding retiree medical care by $15 million this year, according to a county report.

“When we are struggling with a $61 million budget deficit, this is the only good news we’ve had lately,” said Board of Supervisors chairwoman Valerie Brown, “It is exactly the direction that we were hoping our medical costs would go.”

The amount county government contributes to medical coverage for its former employees and their families fell over a two-year period from $37 million in fiscal year 2007-2008 to $22 million in the current year, according to a review of benefit costs.

The change, which resulted in many retirees paying bigger shares of their medical coverage premiums, is good news for the money-strapped county budget. But it comes at the expense of many retirees who still resent the financial burden on their family budgets.

The issue resonated with current employees as well because medical premium restructuring also applies to them and would affect them in retirement.

“They made promises on medical care to people for over 30 years and their failure to keep their promise is the issue, not the calculation of benefits,” said Carol Bauer, a former parks administrator who now heads the county Association of Retired Employees.

But former supervisor Tim Smith, who supported restructuring medical plan premium contributions when he was on the board, said the two-year plunge in medical contribution costs “validates the action the board took.”

“It was a step that needed to be taken, in the end, it will be a huge benefit for Sonoma County,” Smith said. “Still, it was such a difficult issue and nobody wanted to say no to people. But we had reached a crossroads and you could not continue to balance the budget and continue medical contributions at their current rate.”

The issue remains a sore point in the relationship between some members of the board and groups of union members and retirees. During labor contract negotiations and during mediation sessions, unions continue to challenge the county administration’s restructuring of health benefits. The Association of Retired Employees continues to pursue its lawsuit against the county.

Union officials, who did not want to be quoted because of ongoing contract discussions, indicated they are pursuing proposals that make concessions, but also save taxpayers’ money in a manner different than existing policies.

The new report detailing the decline in post-employment benefits will certainly be a major topic during the May 20 meeting of the county’s Joint Labor Management Benefits Committee. The task force of about two dozen members represents unions and retired workers, and includes representatives from county personnel and administration.

More than three years ago, former county administrator Bob Deis launched an effort to convince members of the committee that dramatic changes in medical benefit contributions were necessary to reduce future obligations. Resentment over the outcome has often been cited as a major reason that Deis lost support from county employees. The dissatisfaction also turned into a 2008 election issue that contributed to the turnover of two board seats.

Deis, who resigned in June and has since taken the city manager’s post in Stockton, declined to comment on the new assessment of future medical contribution obligations.

According to the new actuarial valuation, the county’s commitment to retiree medical contributions over the next 30years declined from $407 million to $258 million.

A more important statistic, according to assistant county administrator Chris Thomas, is the decline in percentage of payroll allocated to medical contributions. Two years ago, the county’s annual contribution toward medical plans was nearly 13 percent of payroll, compared with 7.3 percent next fiscal year.

“That has a benefit to the budget,” Thomas said.

County government contributes money for medical plan premiums for about 7,300 people, about 3,500 who are retired and or their dependents.

Under changes imposed on retirees and non-union workers and later negotiated with the labor unions, the county is providing a fixed amount of money toward medical premiums and has abandoned the practice of paying a percentage of health plans.

Although two of the five supervisorial seats have turned over and most union contracts have been renegotiated since 2007, restructuring of county employee and retiree medical contributions has not changed.





24 Responses to “Medical benefit cutbacks pay off for Sonoma County”

  1. chuck becker says:

    @ Lisa,

    “Union workers pay taxes. A lot of taxes. Perhaps instead of trying to engage in a race to the bottom for wages and benefits we should be thinking of ways to better the lives of ALL workers”

    Stop shopping at Walmart, seriously. Buy “Made in America by Union worker” products, refuse to buy anything else. If you think there’s an alternative, then you believe that the Federal Government can legislate this problem away, then you are believing in that which has never been, and will never be. This is a free economy where people are allowed to buy what they want. As long as that is the case then Union shops are going to have to beat non-Union shops in the market. Government is a different story, but when (unionized) government workers are making out better than the non-union voters, then the voters are going to change the rules. That’s how the system works.

    Recap: the only way to avoid a race to the bottom and lift everyone up is to refuse to buy any product not made in America by Union labor. Sign up, or sign out.

    “It is possible if business and the wealthy pay their fair share.”

    Businesses don’t pay taxes. Customers pay taxes, and occasionally the investors may temporarily pay taxes. But if you think that businesses pay taxes, please take a look at how the finances of a corporation work. It’s all a “pass through”. As for the wealthy (very shocking statistic coming up, take a moment to digest), you could confiscate the entire income of those who already pay 90% of the income taxes in this Nation and STILL not balance the budget. There just isn’t nearly as much money there as the other 299,000,000 of us think.

    “Someone who gives 30 years of their life to a job is entitled to live with dignity and the health care and retirement they are promised.”

    No. They are entitled to the retirement they are promised, nothing else. There is no entitlement to dignity or anything else, that is up to the individual to arrange for themselves. And if the company or agency they gave 30 years to goes broke and out of business, then there’s no entitlement at all.

    “Instead of acting like crabs in a bucket and pulling each other down, let’s raise standards for all. It’s doable.”

    I wear New Balance running shoes because they are made in the United States by Union labor. I wear Diamond Gusset jeans because they are made in the United States, by non-Union workers (there are zero US Union-made jeans available, but at least they’re made in the US). That is the ONLY way to make this work. What are you wearing?

    wr/Chuck

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  2. chuck becker says:

    Lisa, Laura,

    You have my respect for posting under your real name. But it’s not purely a “Conservative attacking Liberal” thing. I have been actively attack by posters going by pseudonyms like “haggis lover”, “mr. miyagi”, and “alkohollic”. I’ve just pretty well quit paying attention to people posting under pre-pubescent names.

    Maybe if we keep doing what we do, the entire forum will become more mature, even if we continue to disagree.

    wr/Chuck

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  3. lisa maldonado says:

    Yes Laura,or they should go back to the PD’s forum where they can spew racist, anti-union attacks from behind the safety and anonymity of their computer screens. Alan do you have any real arguments or comments about the issues or do you just want to spend all your time trying to get me to shut up? If you were paying attention to the facts of the debate you would have noticed that someone has already corrected you they’re \retirement benefits\ NOT pensions. You may have also noticed that my suggestions were that we will have to raise revenues locally to support swimming pools, senior centers etc or we will have to overturn the 2/3 rule in our state so that oppositional GOP members can’t hold our budget hostage and refuse to make oil companies pay their fair share.But I guess your answer is to just keep blaming everything on working people who have done their jobs for 30 years and kept their part of the contract they made with the county. Oh and while you all continue to insult me, I notice that none of you has signed their name or even come up with a lame excuse for why you continue to take cheap shots at me anonymously. Profanity may be an undesirable debate tactic but it’s not nearly as bad as cowardly insults flung at your opponent from the safety of your fake name!

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  4. Laura Gonzalez says:

    Lisa, they don’t sign their names because then they can’t go on spewing the filthy lies and hatred that make their lives worth living.

    “Tired” for instance is spreading the lie that Jill Ravitch endorses sanctuary. Hah! Actually, “Tired” and “Zuma” should sign up for the Real Santa Rosa, where they can dish lies & vitriol to their hearts’ contecnt, and under their own names!

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  5. Alan says:

    Lisa, Do you think your rants really help your cause? It looks as if you really want all the attention for yourself, not the issue or the union pensioners you claim to represent. And where did you learn the use of profanity as a debate tactic? You only impress yourself.

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  6. lisa maldonado says:

    Tired (and every one else too chickenshi%$ to sign your real name) I really don’t care about the personal attacks and insults that people like yourself make against me. It is precisely because my opinions are my own and deeply felt that I continue posting (and that’s my right)
    It has nothing to do with who signs my paycheck and by the way that is precisely the kind of lame ad hominem (look it up) attack that people with no ideas make when they can’t argue about anything real. (Besides you were Tired when you first started posting, so I am not surprised that you are still “Tired”)
    Hey why doncha get off the computer take a nap?

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  7. tired of politics says:

    Lisa,

    You and your politcal views are quite obvious and hypocritical. It all depends on who is signing your check as to which side you will take.

    Also, your personal rantings about your personal opinions are gettng old and tiresome.

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  8. lisa maldonado says:

    Jim
    It’s interesting that you label my posts “angry” and “emotional” when others on this board have resorted to accusations, labels and even yelling (ie CAPITAL LETTERS)Funny that you saw no reason to comment on JB’s saying “you union folks don’t get it” calling my post a “diatribe” (it wasn’t) my ideas “stale” and telling me to “step up my game” and “give it a rest” but if I speak up to defend myself, my views and union workers all of a sudden I am “angry” and “emotional”. Your appeal to the general public ie, “everyone thinks so” is a common fallacy in argument that is often used to silence those with whom one disagrees when you can’t formulate a substantive argument. It’s also incorrect as at least one person on the board has thanked me for my views and work. In any case I am tired of being insulted and told to shut up by people who are too cowardly to even sign their real name (how much credibility can one give to an anonymous poster?) You need not address or engage with me or my angry and emotional postings…simply pass them over.It’s easy to avoid my postings because I am not afraid to sign my name to my arguments. You may label that last remark “tearing into you” if you like I think of it as calling you on your hypocrisy…

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  9. Jim says:

    Lisa, I think all the others are simply saying is that your emotional and angry posts don’t further the conversation. Rather than attacking those with whom you disagree, try coming up with some creative ideas to a problem we all share. Go ahead and light into me, now.

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  10. lisa maldonado says:

    Alan
    You rest, I’m not tired! (don’t read em if you don’t like em!)

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  11. Alan says:

    Lisa, please, give it a rest.

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  12. lisa maldonado says:

    Oh and “JB” at least my polical opinions (stale as they may be) are proudly and publicly given. I don’t have to hide behind anonymity and initials because I am too scared to take cheap shots at other peoples opinions without signing my real name…If Hatersville is full you can always try Chickensh&^%ville! I know they’ll have room for you!

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  13. lisa maldonado says:

    JB Fairness and Equity never goes stale, however your anti-union cynicism smells very Reaganish…needless to say the No Tax Norquist crowd you belong to has already tanked the ca economy…luckily people who live here are not averse to social equity…people who care about libraries and day cares and public swiming pools and parks…people who know we all do better when those who live and work in our community have good jobs and health care and benefits and don’t have to use the emergency room for basic medical…you know civilized people….meanwhile there’s always room in Hatersvile for another one of your ilk.

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  14. JB says:

    Lisa… your union rhetoric is stale to the tune of about 10 years. This diatribe worked when municipalities still had exploitable resources and a promising economy on which to balance their unfunded liabilities.

    If you union types plan on surviving this unfortunate political climate, you’re going to have to step up your game a bit.

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  15. TG says:

    I don’t believe it is $587 a year for health care, more like a month.

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  16. J says:

    First, Sonoma County is not a PENSION plan. It is a Retirement plan. County employees contribute to it upwards of 10% or more from each and every paycheck.

    Second, the County gave active employees a bonus of $600 a month while they took away the contribution for health care.

    Third, they could have chosen a variety of options to deal with the problem besides hitting the retiree below the belt. Some of those retirees are 80-90 yrs old and on a very limited income. County insurance is secondary to their Medicare but still should not wipe out their entire retirement check each month.

    They could have fixed this 12-13 years ago when they first knew there was going to be a problem. They could have fixed this a few years ago when it became a major problem.

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  17. Tom Lynch says:

    Hi Lisa,

    I’m out the door, but if our public employee unions had similar pension plans to the trade unions there would not be a problem. Most trade unions are defined contribution, not defined benefit…why? Because the trade unions realize to do otherwise would unfairly burden younger workers and employers to the point of bankruptcy with nothing left for anybody.

    I have met with the heads of SEIU and in a very positive engagement we talked about solutions including paycuts and pension reform to make the system more sustainable. These pensions and benefits are paid not just by the taxpayers, but by the active rank and file as well. I know hundreds of public servants, most of whom agree changes need to be made.

    Thank you for your good works Lisa.

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  18. Tom Lynch says:

    ah but the problem is the County gave all the actives a $10,000 raise of $40,000,000 in salary and benefits…so $25,000,000 of the $60,000,000 deficit is due to this raise. Add to that another 6% increase in pension set aside from 08-09 fiscal year to 09-10 fiscal year, of approx. $20,000,000…plus another $10,000,000 increase to pension this year. Voila, close to $60,000,000 deficit,due to salary and benefit increases. Of course add to that a decline in property taxes = layoffs and cuts in essential services and unwarranted fee increases.

    What we need to do in order to save our County worker jobs is a programs of graduated salary based paycuts similar to what Ireland is doing. And pension reforms that make the system sustainable. If you can’t set aside enough to honestly cover the debt today…how can you do it tomorrow?

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  19. lisa maldonado says:

    Zack and Alan. Union workers pay taxes. A lot of taxes. Perhaps instead of trying to engage in a race to the bottom for wages and benefits we should be thinking of ways to better the lives of ALL workers not just union workers, so that people can afford to live near their work, and not have to work 2 jobs just to make rent and spend time with their families. It is possible if business and the wealthy pay their fair share. Someone who gives 30 years of their life to a job is entitled to live with dignity and the health care and retirement they are promised. Instead of acting like crabs in a bucket and pulling each other down, let’s raise standards for all. It’s doable.

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  20. Alan says:

    You union folks really don’t get it, do you? It’s not about whether the taxpayers care about you or your family anymore than you care about the taxpayers or their families. I like to think we all have a certain empathy for one another. The issue is simply the sustainability (or lack of) of your benefits packages. Already our roads are falling into disrepair, fire houses are being shuttered on a rotating basis, parks will go brown this summer, senior centers are slated for closing, community swimming pools are drying up, the list goes on. So I ask you, just where do you see the money coming from to continue paying these packages?

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  21. Jim Stewart says:

    Give it up on the public relations Sonoma County Unions. It is a losing battle. The people you work for don’t care about your troubles, your family or your jobs. Only that you get a better benifits package than some them do. It is called Class Warefare. They painted you as the enemy and it worked. People are now happy you got screwed. How does that make you feel?

    That happened to me once in my business. I got mad and doubled my efforts and took over the other guys and fired them all. Too bad, so sad, get out… Consider that.

    The unions may now get pissed enough to strike and get even more. That would be a sight to see. Cops and Deputys on strike. Thank goodness I have my CCW and can protect myself and family. Good luck Sonoma County. Actually, I will root for the underdogs…. I got MINE, I hope they take yours Sonoma County. Go get them unions, tear them a new one.

    I love this country. If you know where to look there is never a dull moment.

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  22. Dan says:

    Wow! $587/yr for a married couple. We pay double that. Where do I sign up?

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  23. Zack Debarco says:

    Wake up America!!! Today they are taking away the promised & negotiated for (legal contract) Sonoma Co. Retiree health benefits – tomorrow ?????????

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  24. bear says:

    Great. Health insurance for a married couple will increase over 70% in one year – to $587, with more to come. We couldn’t afford to retire in Sonoma County, which gives us few choices of health plans. Actually, alternative plans are more expensive.

    I accuse the Board of Supervisors of eliminating any opportunity to really bargain with the health insurance vultures by adopting this $500/person maximum health contribution per retiree. Sounds good politically, but gives the insurance companies a free opportunity to raise their rates to any level, because they know the County won’t care.

    So I guess that’s the message from Sonoma County: WE DON’T CARE if we ruin the lives of people who worked 20, 30 or more years in public service. Promises broken are simply lies.

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