City employees make tough choices in effort to save jobs

In an effort to preserve some city of Ashland jobs that are on the chopping block, police officers as well as clerical and technical workers have volunteered to accept health insurance changes that will save $137,320.

The employees will move to a preferred provider network health insurance plan that requires them to use doctors, specialists and hospitals who have agreed to the plan's terms.

The Ashland Firefighters Association, which represents non-management workers at Ashland Fire Rescue, decided not to go to the preferred provider network plan. Doing so would have saved another $71,989.

Earlier this month, the Citizens' Budget Committee cut money for several positions in an effort to hold down property tax increases. Rather than raising taxes by 29 cents per $1,000 in assessed value as City Administrator Martha Bennett had recommended, the budget committee authorized a 13.5 cents per $1,000 tax increase.

The owner of a home assessed at $213,000 &

the median in Ashland &

will pay an extra $28.76 during the fiscal year that starts July 1, rather than an extra $61.77 had the budget committee approved a larger tax increase.

The proposed $95,206,615 city budget will go before the Ashland City Council on Tuesday during a meeting that starts at 7 p.m. in the Ashland Civic Center,

1175 E. Main St. The council will take public input about the budget. The proposed budget is up from the current fiscal year's adopted budget of $91,864,667.

The fact that some employee groups have now agreed to health insurance changes that save money has put a new twist on the budget discussion.

The City Council cannot increase the property tax rate set by the budget committee, but with money freed up that would otherwise have gone to a health insurance company, councilors could choose to restore some jobs that would end June 30.

Bennett said she will recommend that the departments that accepted the health insurance change be allowed to use the savings.

"I just really appreciate this very much. This is something the employees didn't have to do," she said.

"Their recognition of the city's financial condition is a testament to their dedication and how smart they are."

City revenue is not keeping pace with the rising cost of providing the same level of services to residents, leading to financial problems now that are projected to get worse.

Saving jobs?

Police Chief Terry Holderness, who is not represented by the Ashland Police Association, said he is proud of his police officers.

"I think they're wonderful. They saw the city was in trouble and stepped up to the plate on their own," he said.

The budget committee cut $150,000 from the Ashland Police Department to dampen the property tax increase.

The police employees' move to the network health insurance plan will save $51,855 &

not enough to pay for a school resources officer position that Holderness said he will have to cut. That position is vacant.

Holderness said it will be up to the City Council, but he would like to use the savings to restore cuts to his overtime budget, to keep the services of a part-time computer technician who helps the police department and to help prevent the loss of a code compliance specialist in the Community Development Department. He said Ashland Police Department employees accepted the health insurance change even knowing it would not save a police officer job.

Employees from the clerical/technical union who accepted the health insurance change are spread out among different city departments, including Community Development, Public Works and Electric. That group has saved $85,485.

The budget committee cut $58,000 from the Community Development Department alone to lessen the property tax increase. That money paid for the code compliance specialist's salary and benefits.

Before the start of the budget process this spring, employees who are not represented by unions &

which includes managers and their support staff &

had agreed to move to the preferred provider network for a savings of $168,665. Elected officials like City Council members and the municipal judge will be in the network also, saving $16,581.

Total savings are $322,566.

Two other union groups representing employees that include Public Works crews and electrical linemen are in contract negotiations with the city. Whether they will agree to move to the preferred provider network is not yet known.

If every city employee was in the network, the savings would be $528,530, said Human Resources Director Tina Gray.

Bennett said the move to the network plan will have little impact on employees making the switch because the hospitals in Ashland and Medford and most doctors and specialists are already a part of the network. She said preferred provider network plans have more of an impact on people who live in Portland because some providers there are not part of such plans.

Firefighters resist change

David Shepherd, an Engineer/E.M.T. and the president of the Ashland Firefighters Association, said when firefighters talked together about the possible shift to the network plan, they discovered that some firefighters and their family members have unusual illnesses that require them to use Portland specialists who are not part of the plan.

They already incur costs to travel to Portland, and having to pay to visit an out-of-network specialist would be extremely expensive, he said.

The $71,989 the firefighters would have saved by joining the network would not be enough to save Fire Inspector Shawn Branaugh's position, which is slated for elimination. The firefighters also received no assurances that that money would be used to help keep that job, Shepherd said.

The budget committee cut $107,000 from the Ashland Fire Rescue budget &

an amount that includes the fire inspector's salary and benefits.

The fire inspector is in a management position and is not represented by the firefighters' union.

Shepherd said firefighters hate to lose someone from the fire prevention team, but when the fire inspector position was created a few years ago, the intent was for it to be funded through building permit fees. With the decline in construction, he said firefighters respect the decision of the budget committee to eliminate the position.

Even if the fire inspector were saved this year, he could still be cut next year because of ongoing budget problems that cannot be solved by simply shifting to a preferred provider health insurance plan, Shepherd said.

"It's a quick-fix solution, not a long-term solution," he said.

Branaugh said he doesn't blame the firefighters' association for not wanting to move to a preferred provider network.

"I'm not upset with the firefighters at all. The firefighters have taken a lot of cuts in the past. They have always chosen to save their medical benefits," he said. "It's not fair to almost guilt someone into helping your buddy."

Branaugh said if his position cannot be fully funded by building permit revenue during the construction downturn, perhaps the city could charge reinspection fees for building or business owners who repeatedly violate the fire code and don't make corrections in a timely manner.

The fire inspector's duties include ensuring that new construction complies with the fire safety provisions of the building code, inspecting buildings to make sure they remain safe and in compliance with the fire code and investigating fires. Branaugh said he also does everything from helping nursing homes and hotels develop evacuation and care plans for residents and hotel guests, to changing fire alarm batteries for elderly residents who are afraid to climb up on step ladders and don't have nearby relatives to help.

The city's building inspectors and Fire Marshal Margueritte Hickman will have to take over his responsibilities. Even with Branaugh and Hickman working full-time now, Branaugh said they don't have time to do recommended annual inspections of buildings such as schools, day care centers, Southern Oregon University structures, hotels and bed and breakfast inns, restaurants, clubs and theaters where there is a risk of a high loss of life from a fire.

Without regular inspections, fire code violations such as locked fire exits mount up, he said.

Branaugh said he believes budget committee members did not receive enough information and thought his job was focused mainly on reviewing construction plans.

"If my position goes away, the community has to assume more risk," he said. "The community and the City Council have to look at it and say, 'How much risk are we willing to take on?'"

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