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Thousands of retirees, employees affected as supervisors move to bring benefits into line with other public, private entities

  • Retired Sonoma County workers (l to r) Mike Brown, a sheriff for 31 years, Carl Jackson, 35 years with the water agency and Vernon Evans, 27 years at the water agency, listen to supervisors vote in favor of reducing medical benefits at their meeting on Tuesday.

Convinced that the county no longer can afford spiraling health insurance premiums, Sonoma County supervisors told thousands of retirees and employees Tuesday that they will have to pay an increasing share of the cost.

Supervisors conceded their vote would be unpopular with the 2,500 retirees and 650 non-union workers who will be affected by the cost restructuring beginning in June.

But handing out less county money to pay for health insurance is better than none at all, the five supervisors unanimously decided at the end of a three-hour hearing and debate.

"No question it is a lower level, but if we don't do that, a future board will say, sorry, we can't afford it," said board Chairman Mike Kerns.

Supervisor Mike Reilly, his eyes reddening as he struggled to hold back tears, read a prepared statement, saying, "We have not found a way to resolve the issue without disadvantaging retirees."

And Supervisor Paul Kelley said, "If we don't make a fiscally responsible decision now, the overwhelming credit card balance will come due."

Also voting in favor were supervisors Tim Smith and Valerie Brown.

County officials say cutting payments for future health care premiums, which are growing at 7 percent to 10 percent a year, is necessary to make up a $15 million annual deficit in funding commitments for health care premiums, expected to total $407 million over the next 30 years.

Similar proposals to cut health care contributions to about 2,000 union members provoked a large noontime rally that began just as supervisors voted.

Earlier in the morning, more than 300 retirees and their supporters crowded into the board chambers, spilled into the hallway outside and sat in folding chairs on the plaza outside the administration building.

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