County To Pay More For Health Insurance

December 8, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Besides satisfying a $1 million request for the new West Michigan Sports Commission, county commissioners will also be asked on Thursday to commit more money to cover next year's health insurance costs and set fees that some have seen as being unpopular and unnecessary.

When commissioners adopted the 2007 county budget, which takes effect on Jan. 1, they added 12 percent to the $10.57 million budgeted for health insurance in 2006 and adopted $11.9 million for group insurance coverage in 2007.

But last week, members of the county's Finance Committee learned the increase would be 27 percent and not the 12 percent that was estimated during the budget talks earlier this year.

CountyFiscal Services Director Robert White told the committee the bigger hike was necessary because the rates for 2006 were underestimated and insurance claims were up for the year from 2005.

"We've had a bad year for claims," he said, while adding that the increase was in line with the hikes other governments were reporting.

The result is that the county needs another $3.47 million for health coverage next year.

Commissioners will be asked to allocate an additional $1.56 million in cash toward the increase. About half of those dollars will come from the general fund. Some will be taken from the special revenue and the component unit funds.

Board members will also be asked to transfer money from the capital projects account and the debt service fund to cover the remaining dollars.

The increase is for the county's 1,877 employees, retirees and cost allocation.

KentCounty does not provide retirees with health insurance. Instead, it gives former employees a set amount of cash each month that they can put toward their insurance costs. Payments range from $250 to $350 per month.

The Finance Committee approved the additional appropriation last week. The county self-funds its health insurance plan.

Commissioners will vote on the controversial fees for the MillenniumPark beach and water area Thursday. If approved, the daily charges for the 2007 summer season will be the same as this year's: $3 for adults, $2 for seniors, and $1 for ages 3-15.

New for next year, though, are passes that will be good for unlimited visits for the entire season. A family pass will be $40, a senior pass $20, and a pass for persons ages 16-62 will be $35.

"I think we've proven the fact that there is a need for a fee, but I wish it was lower," said Commissioner Tom Postmus.

Postmus was referring to the results from the pilot fee program the county enacted for the first time this summer. Revenue from the fee schedule was well below expectations. The county was hoping to generate $665,000 in revenue from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but only received $135,756 from the fees for the season.

But county expenditures for MillenniumPark will come in under the budgeted amount. Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson said expenses should be about $522,000 for the year, while nearly $683,000 had been budgeted for the park's second year of operation.

The fee schedule has been controversial because some commissioners feel access to the entire park should be free, as it is in the rest of the park system.

"At this time, I think we should hold off on the fee and go a summer without it," said Commissioner Harold Voorhees last week.

But the Finance Committee approved the new fee schedule last week, and the full board will take up the matter this week.

"I'm pleased to see the annual family pass," said Commissioner Gary Rolls.

Swanson reported that MillenniumPark had 71,760 visitors pay a fee for access to the beach and water area last summer. Admission to the park itself is free.

Commissioners are expected to allocate $1 million over five years this week toward the operation of the sports commission, which will be charged with increasing the revenue to the local hospitality industry by attracting sporting events to the region.

The money has been targeted to come from the county's lodging-excise tax, which adds 5 percent to a guest's hotel or motel bill.    

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