Medical benefit cutbacks pay off for Sonoma County

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 $61million 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.

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