City - County Gov.Leslee KulbaLocal News: Asheville and HendersonvilleLocal OpinionOpinion

Buncombe County must reduce employee benefits

What caught the commissioners’ attention most was a graph projecting growth in healthcare claims and revenue growth. The former is increasing at 10% each year; the latter, 2%. If trends continue, in ten years, expenditures on claims alone will create a budget gap of $36 million. Wood clarified he wasn’t talking about a one-time $36 million shortfall, the $36 million would be preceded by a $30 million gap in 2028, a $25 million gap in 2027, etc. Frost pointed out the graph assumed no industry reforms would come, as surely they must. To that, Wood replied, “You gotta plan for the worst.”

Commissioner Mike Fryar suggested the county could realize immediate savings by revoking benefits from persons earning $200,000 or more. He felt younger people were probably overinsured as well. Newman said change had to come, if only to make healthcare more affordable. Whitesides said the commissioners had to make some tough decisions, decisions that should not have been put off until now.

Wood said one thing the county could do is offer high-deductible plans. Some county employees now have Flexible Savings Accounts, but they lose half of what they put away in those accounts at the end of the year. Wood suggested the county offer Health Savings Accounts instead, as young people not needing insurance will find them attractive, and they’ll be able to keep what they put away. Wood reminded the commissioners they were doing more than moving numbers around on paper. Increasing premiums, for example, would check those overutilizing benefits but harm those with a lot of medical issues as well.

Special Formal Meeting –

The same day, the commissioners adopted two resolutions essentially saying the county was no longer going to do business with Joe Wiseman, Jr., the “Contractor” identified in the most recent indictment from the ongoing federal investigation of former county leadership. The “Contractor,” it was reported, treated county management to junkets until they were so addicted, they explicitly demanded their destinations. The “Contractor” was repaid with county business which appears to have been completed satisfactorily. Further investigation is needed to determine if he was overpaid.

A search by Wood, Assistant County Manager Jim Holland, and Solid Waste Director Dane Pedersen found only one open contract. It was for work on the new transfer station, valued at about $8000. In accordance with General Statutes, the contract will now be awarded to SRS, the next-most qualified firm. Management also froze any outstanding payments to Wiseman and his affiliated businesses.

Commissioners Joe Belcher and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara had to be patched-in, as they were unable to attend in person. This made for some comic relief, because a delay in the signal was sufficient to make it sound like Belcher was actually voting for continuing contracts that had just been described as toxic. Ferrara’s signal was also delayed, but she had dropped off the line and nobody noticed until she started sending texts. When the problems were identified and fixed, Newman then carefully redid the unanimous vote.

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