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Commissioners' health benefits may fund work

March 12th, 2014 9:31 pm by Gary B. Gray

Commissioners' health benefits may fund work

County commissioners could be saying so long to taxpayer-funded insurance benefits if an amended resolution to spend an additional $120,000 for completion of second-floor renovations at the Washington County Courthouse gets the thumbs up from the full commission on March 24.

Budget Committee members listened Wednesday as County-Owned Property Committee Chair Phyllis Corso once again made her plea to hire contractor Hiram Rash and complete the renovated commission chambers, offices and conference rooms at a cost of $150,000, which includes the roughly $30,000 on hand.

After hearing from Corso, Budget Committee member Ethan Flynn said he wanted to see the project go forward. What he said next shocked and offended several members of the COP Committee and other commissioners at the meeting.

“I would support this project with an amendment that states that at the beginning of the next commission term (September), we would stop subsidizing commissioners’ health insurance.”

County Mayor Dan Eldridge told attendees that using these funds to pay for the project would “basically be a wash,” and the recurring funds would benefit county taxpayers. He said commissioners could still get health insurance through the county, but money from county coffers would no longer pay for expenses.

The vote was unanimous.

“It’s smoke and mirrors and slight of hand,” Corso said.

A voice came from the back of the room.

“Are you recommending taking away insurance from commissioners,” Commissioner Steven Light asked. “You’re taking a benefit away from what commissioners work for. You can laugh at me, that’s fine.”

Corso looked at Flynn and asked him if it was solely his idea.

“Yes, it is,” he answered.

Corso began gathering her things, rose from her seat and said: “This is the most outrageous thing this committee’s ever done.”

COP Committee members Doyle Cloyd and Alpha Bridger made a few remarks and left the meeting.

From September 2011 through June 2013, county taxpayers have funded $407,376 in health insurance costs for county commissioners and their family members. The estimated cost for this fiscal year is $122,508.

Commissioners pay monthly costs of $50 for employee only coverage, $110 for employee plus one coverage and $160 for family coverage.

Each of the county’s 25 commissioners are paid $375 per month for a total of $4,500 a year. The chairman and vice chairman each make an additional $600 per year. Combined, the total paid to commissioners each year is $114,450, not including benefits.

Prior to the vote, Corso said the project had been held up for too long and asked the county to hire a professional to finish the job, as spelled out in a COP Committee resolution that has been tossed back and forth between the two committees. Corso also said the COP Committee had a hard time gathering a “complete and accurate” accounting of the project.

Eldridge halted Corso.

“Let me correct a couple of things you’ve been saying,” he said. “You said the committee has had a difficult time getting a complete and accurate accounting. This is information that’s been handed out to the full commission on two occasions.

Eldridge produced documents from April and July 2013 showing expenses, materials, names of suppliers and costs. The total spent to date: $166,129.03. The original estimated cost of the project was just more than $210,000. About $194,000 has been either spent or committed. The county still has about $60,000 to complete the job, but about half is already spoken for.

“Today, I’m giving you this for the third time,” Eldridge told Corso.

Corso’s chief complaint is the liability the county bears by using inmate labor on the job, and using a professional contractor and tradesmen would relieve the county of that liability and produce a better product. Budget Committee members have consistently pushed back, saying inmate labor is the way to go.

Eldridge said he talked with J.E. Green Construction owner John Green and Johnson City construction agent Tommy Burleson, owner of Burleson Construction.

“They informed me that as long as a sheriff’s deputy is on the scene, there should be no problem with it,” Eldridge said. “Mr. Burleson used inmate labor on the Science Hill and Liberty Bell projects.”

Corso said Rash had raked through all available information “very carefully” but had not been able to come up with a full accounting of where the project stood.

“Mr. Rash is not an accountant,” said Budget Committee member Mitch Meredith.

Discussion about the amended resolution was put on hold while various county officials gave reports. Then, near the end of the meeting, Budget Committee member Joe Grandy introduced an alternative resolution should the amended version fail.

“We have the archives project on hold, and we’re still in the old county office building,” he said. “We have a contract price to renovate the building for the archives. I propose completing all second floor renovations except the commission chambers, and I recommend Tommy Burleson oversee the work, including inmate labor. That way, we can move the mayor, his assistant and bookkeeping to the courthouse and begin renovations for the archives building.”

The motion won unanimous approval. It will be used if the amended COP Committee resolution fails, and work would begin pending approval by the full commission and certification by the state fire marshal’s office.

Meanwhile, commissioners will continue to meet in a George P. Jaynes Justice Center courtroom, as they have for nearly a year now.  

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