By Scott Robertson
The Washington County Commission eliminated its own health insurance in a 20-4 vote Monday night, fulfilling a campaign promise made by many commissioners earlier this year. The move, however, did not come without rancor.
Commissioner Steve Light, who is battling cancer, asked that he and Commissioner Sam Humphreys, the only two commissioners who currently accept the taxpayer-funded health insurance, be allowed to continue doing so for the remainder of this four-year term.
“This should be a matter that comes up the next term,” Light said. “To do it in the middle of the term, almost instantly, why would you do that? When they look at the news, people feel like we’ve committed a crime or something – and we haven’t. It was offered and we took it. We have people that are unhealthy. Let’s make it effective the next term of election.”
The commission instead voted to end benefits March 31, 2015.
Michelle Stewart, benefits coordinator, had lobbied for the change to take place at the end of the contract year, June 30. “That’s more compassionate,” she said.
Commissioner Mike Ford, who voted along with Humphreys, Light and Danny Edens against the resolution, criticized other commissioners for taking away the insurance of two ailing colleagues. “I’d like to ask the benefits committee, did you guys even take into consideration the health of these folks?” Ford asked. “Just have some compassion is all I’m asking. I just think we should have some heart and some humanity to us.
Humphreys took umbrage at the idea that he and Light were doing something wrong by accepting a benefit which has up until now been offered to all commissioners. Twenty-three of the 25 members of the last commission had accepted the taxpayer-funded insurance. “I’ll survive one way or the other, but it’s not right to do people the way you all are doing right now,” Humphreys told the commission. “I hope you do the public, the taxpayers a whole lot better than you’ve done Steve and me.”
But the majority of the commission was unmoved. Commissioner Tom Krieger said, “I don’t think this is a question of insurance or no insurance. It’s a question of who’s paying for the insurance,” adding, “I really feel 90 days is sufficient time for someone to go out and get coverage.”
Commissioner Joe Wise agreed with Humphreys’ contention that the two commissioners who were still accepting insurance were not doing anything untoward, but added, “I don’t believe they have behaved in any way on this issue they need to be ashamed of or vilified for. However, I do believe this commission needs to move forward in making a judgment that that is no longer appropriate.”
The commission voted to rescind the private act that has allowed the commission (instead of the mayor) to hold direct authority over the office of the zoning administrator. The commission also created the position of administrator for the Environmental Court.
Mike Rutherford, who has been zoning administrator since the private act came into being, ran against Mayor Dan Eldridge in the last Republican primary, and some had questioned the wisdom of having Rutherford work directly under Eldridge. Rutherford, however, will move into the new Environmental Court position, working under Judge Lisa Nidiffer.
The Zoning Oversight Committee appointed the current building inspector, Scott Chapman, to assume the duties Rutherford had performed, at least until this spring.
Obsolete System Replacement
Though it was not asked to take any action, the commission heard a report from Mayor Dan Eldridge and Jeff Morgan, an information technology consultant, stating that the county will have to replace its antiquated financial system. That system has been in place for 30 years, and the company that sold it to the county will cease providing service June 30, 2015.
Morgan illustrated what the county’s current system is by showing commissioners pictures of items including 8-track tapes and an AMC Pacer. “Your financial system is still at that level,” Morgan said.
Added Eldridge, “I just want everybody to know up front, this will be a nightmare. But the idea of trying to keep using the current system without service support, I just don’t want to even think about that.”
The county will put out a request for proposals from vendors in early December and hopes to begin implementation in April.
Cause for Paws
The commission approved paying $65,000 for paving services for the new Johnson City/Washington County Animal Shelter. Under the original agreement, the county had donated $250,000 in cash and promised $100,000 worth of paving. The timetable, however, will no longer permit the county to provide those services, so the commission agreed to pay a contractor $65,000 to do the work on its behalf.