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Administrators want to pay fixed amount toward premiums rather than current, ever-increasing 85%

  • Retired county employee Kay Nicholson, 65, left, with Kimberly Girard, expresses her frustration with the convoluted economics during a meeting about health care coverage at the Vets Building in Santa Rosa on Friday.

About 300 Sonoma County government retirees -- many angry that their health costs may increase -- filled a hall at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building for three hours Friday to hear plans that would result in many paying bigger portions of their benefits.

The informational meeting sets up an Aug. 19 showdown before county supervisors, who will decide whether to adopt the administration's proposed restructuring of health benefits. Those changes would affect 2,400 retired workers beginning next June. The changes also mirror, to a great extent, the county administration's proposals to its 4,200 current workers, including those in unions, nonunion staff and managers.

Administrators attempting to explain the proposed changes were interrupted several times by former workers who shouted that those proposals were unfair and amounted to the county reneging on promises of future health care.

Jim Andersen, assistant county administrator, told the assembly that supervisors want to preserve health care for retirees, but will be forced to cut back the county's contribution because mounting costs threaten basic services.

"At some point, it is going to collapse, and all future boards will have to look to pare that away," Andersen said. "We recognize that there were expectations."

"No. Promises. Not expectations," several in the audience shouted.

The county is putting about $20 million annually into health plan premium costs for retirees and employees, an amount about $17 million short of what's needed. The gap over 30 years is expected to grow to $414 million, according to an analysis performed by a company under county contract.

Currently, the county pays 85 percent of a retiree's health plan premium. Administrators propose to phase in over five years a system that abandons percentage payments on retiree health premiums in favor of paying a flat $500 a month.

Ron Piorek, a retired deputy county administrator, called the change in direction a "betrayal of trust" because thousands of county employees had accepted what they viewed as low salary increases in exchange for commitments to health care during retirement.

"It is a matter of will and policy that they (supervisors) do not reduce that liability," said Piorek, who presented an alternative plan that establishes a trust fund to cover the growing liability.

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