Archive for July 29th, 2014

City Workers Next

Jose Altuve now has 149 base hits and leads MLB. Who led MLB in base hits last season?

Dave Wilson is certainly giving Vince Ryan and his crew the big F-You. He put out a photo of his second crib with a sign that says “home sweet home”. I told you!

No word yet on the signature count at City Hall.

I don’t think I would like to be serving on the H-Town City Council these days. Apparently they are going to have to deal with a budget shortfall next year. Yesterday, the Chron had a piece on a possible garbage fee to help erase the looming deficit. Today in the Chron there is mention of a proposal to have City employees cough up some of their dough for their health insurance. Hey, it is what it is. It is going to be interesting in that next year is an election year including races for Mayor and Controller. Here is the Chron piece on sticking it to City employees:

Houston’s municipal workers may be asked to pay a larger share of their health care costs, one of the ideas officials will present to the City Council on Tuesday to reduce a $144 million deficit looming next summer.

The cost of health care for Houston employees, which makes up roughly 10 percent of the general fund budget, has been a source of stress for city finance officials in recent years. Short-term spikes and dips in claims have prompted several changes to premiums and benefits, causing confusion or consternation among workers.

Houston’s budget problem is driven by spiking pension obligations and debt payments and a decade-old voter-imposed cap on city revenues expected to kick in for the first time next year. Without tough changes, Mayor Annise Parker has said, layoffs await.

A key option, Parker has said, is to increase the share of health care costs employees pay. The city now pays three-fourths, and employees pay one-fourth.

“We have a very generous health benefits plan, even with the changes,” Parker said, referring to premium increases and cuts to benefits made last year. “We could shift more of those costs to our employees.”

Forcing employees to pick up 30 percent of health costs, rather than a quarter, could save the city up to $20 million in the first year, officials estimate. Requiring employees to cover half of health costs could save $80 million.

Melvin Hughes, president of the Houston Organization of Public Employees, said such discussions mean the mayor and council are not considering the people who make the city run. Such an increase would lead many workers to stop seeking care for themselves and their families, Hughes said.

“There’s no way we could accept that. We can’t afford an increase on health care. We do not make that kind of money,” Hughes said. “I understand it’s tight and I understand there’s a budget shortfall coming this way. They’re going to have to manage the money a little bit better.”

Changes in budgeting for health care costs began in 2011, when Houston moved from a fully insured plan – under which the city paid fixed monthly premiums – to a self-insured plan in which it pays only when employees need care. The city also started an aggressive prevention program that penalized employees who skipped check-ups.

The approach worked. City health care costs have been flat or decreased in recent years. However, the city repeatedly struggled to accurately project costs.

That led to an awkward few months last year when Houston dumped millions into the health fund to cover a shortfall, increased premiums and cut benefits, and then – a few months later – found the same fund held a large surplus. In response to demands from Hughes’ municipal union, Parker reversed some benefit cuts and rolled back part of the premium increase.

Projection problems continued this year, albeit with a happier outcome, thanks to claims coming in far below expectations.

“We continue to do things to promote the use of preventative measures instead of prescriptive measures,” city Human Resources Director Omar Reid said. “We try to be as accurate as we can with the projections, but when people don’t go to the emergency room because they’re healthier, it’s hard to say what the number’s going to be at the end of the year.”

The health fund on Monday held about $62 million – many times the level of any recent end-of-year balance. The city’s auditors and new proposed financial policies cap the amount of money that can sit in the fund, however, so roughly a third of the balance is being returned to other areas of the city budget.

About $6 million of the money will wind up in the general fund reserve, helping to offset next year’s deficit. City leaders acknowledge the real decision on whether to tap the health reserve, should it still hold a large surplus, will come next year.

“Everything is in play,” said councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the budget committee. “It really is going to depend on what kind of hole we’re trying to fill next year and what projections we have moving forward.”

Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs a council subcommittee on health benefits, said shifting some health costs to employees might make sense, but he said the surplus in the health fund means no decisions should be made now because the city has asked employees to pay more than was needed.

“If I’m an employee, I’m going to scream and say, ‘Where’s my fair share? You told me you needed more money, we gave you the money, and lo and behold you really didn’t need it because your projections were off,'” Martin said. “I don’t think it’s fair to put it back into the general fund and to spend it. I don’t think that’s proper.”

Adrian Beltre of the Rangers and Matt Carpenter of San Luis of course each had 199 base hits last year to lead MLB.

I don’t know what to say about our four dinger explosion last night to beat the best team in MLB.

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