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Angry city retirees will help pay for health insurance

Retired Columbia employees will pay $33 per month for their health insurance to create a $970,000 windfall for a city that is desperately searching for ways to rebuild its budget.

City Council members approved the plan Wednesday despite strong opposition from retired city firefighters who said they feel betrayed by their former employers.

But council members said they had no choice after contemplating a city budget that has been devastated by gross overspending created by years of inaccurate bookkeeping.

“In many ways, our municipal government has been asleep the last several years, and we have woken up,” Councilwoman Belinda Gergel said.

Along with the health insurance increase, council members moved forward with a plan to eliminate commercial garbage pickup, a service the city has provided since the 1960s but over the past decade has cost taxpayers as much as $800,000 a year.

Council members also authorized interim city manager Steve Gantt to borrow $890,000 at a 2 percent interest rate to pay for two firetrucks the city had agreed to buy but did not have the money to pay for.

Altogether, the moves will save taxpayers more than $2 million. Yet council members warned it would not be enough, with Councilman Kirkman Finlay telling the crowd at City Hall “We’ll be back.”

Retirees, mostly firefighters, on Wednesday packed City Hall for at least the fifth time since March 25 to protest the changes to their health insurance. After the vote, dozens of them filed out of City Hall, furious that while council members were raising their insurance costs they were approving $992,013.05 for “removal of beavers and beaver dam debris.”

“$900,000 for beaver eradication? How much do bullets cost?” said Al Hill, a retired firefighter who attended the meeting.

Gantt said the money for the beavers also includes clearing all of the city’s sewer easements — a process that requires cutting down trees and bush hogging.

The city’s sewer lines run on gravity and are usually built alongside creeks and streams. Beavers will dam up those creeks and streams, which create lakes on top of the city’s manhole covers and send up to a million gallons of fresh water to the city’s sewer plant each day.

The fresh water is treated along with the waste water, which can cost the city up to $1 million a year, Gantt said.

But that brought little comfort to the retirees, who say they were repeatedly promised free health insurance when the city hired them.

“It’s not the $33 ... it’s the promises,” retired firefighter Cam Gilliam told council members Wednesday. “The City of Columbia promised us you would pay for our insurance premiums. This will have a much bigger effect on all of you. You voted to betray your employees. That’s is something you will never win back.”

But Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, who developed the plan, said retirees were getting the best deal of all the city’s employees.

The city’s health insurance premiums are designed based on how much it cost the city to provide health care for its employees.

On average, a retired employee costs taxpayers $8,047 each year for doctor visits, prescription drugs and surgeries. An active employee costs taxpayers about $4,974 each year.

Rickenmann’s plan lumped the retirees and the active employees in the same group, which brings the premiums down for retirees while raising them for active employees.

“(Retirees) benefit more than any other group,” Rickenmann said.

But Travis Carricato, with the Columbia Firefighters Association, said by eliminating the free health insurance the city could prevent employees from retiring, which will continue to place a strain on the city’s budget and keep the city from taking advantage of attrition.

But more than that, the city’s firefighters took the news personally after years of dangerous service to the city.

Joe Floyd pointed out that he had to limp to City Hall on Wednesday because he fell through a floor while fighting a fire several years ago.

“Everyone here has some type of injury they incurred while working for the city,” Floyd said. “For the city to go back on this promise, it’s just a shame.”

Reach Beam at (803) 771-8405.

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