Portage County commissioners have changed their minds again, restoring county health insurance coverage for election board members.
The split-vote decision comes more than a year after commissioners waffled about whether to spend more than $20,000 a year to provide the perk to the four political appointees who, on average, attend only one or two morning meetings a month.
In August 2012, commissioners settled on allowing existing board members to keep their health insurance until their posts were renewed. Currently, there is one new appointee who does not receive health care, and three who are still on the county plan.
Commissioner Tommie Jo Marsilio said she was surprised that the issue was brought up again this week and “outraged and offended” that her colleagues — commissioners Kathleen Chandler and Maureen Frederick — voted to restore the benefit after passing a budget that could have used that money.
Among other things, the Portage County Sheriff’s Office has reduced the hours of several deputies to below 30 a week to avoid giving them health insurance that would be required under the Affordable Care Act on Jan. 1.
The county also decided not to fund participation in the Metro SWAT team, a cost that would have been comparable to the cost of providing health-care coverage to the election board members, Marsilio said.
“No city in Portage County can afford their own [SWAT team], so we all participate in Metro SWAT,” Marsilio said. Now, she said, if the county still wants to participate, the sheriff will have to cut something else out of the department’s budget to find the funds.
She also lamented that the sheriff’s office is short five corrections officers, causing concerns about staffing at the county jail.
“When these are the budget times you’re living in, how do you justify giving the political elite more perks?” she said.
Kathleen Chandler, who joined the commissioners in January, said she brought the issue up again because she thought it was unfair that three existing election board members were still getting health care while a newer appointee was not.
“I understand that at some point, they would all cycle out, but in the meantime, some are covered and some are not and that is inequitable,” Chandler said.
For 2014, because three board members are not up for renewal yet, only the fourth board member will be added to the county’s health-care costs.
Chandler said she also learned that state law allows the election board to set up its own health-care coverage and make the county pay for it — something that would be more costly than putting the members on the county’s own self-insured health-care plan.
“Since we already have a health-care program for 1,300 employees, adding [one to four more] would be far less expensive than if the board chose to have a policy of their own,” she said.
Chandler said she had not spoken to the election board about her desire to restore coverage, and said she had no knowledge that the board intended to set up its own health-care plan.
As for the sheriff reducing the hours of county employees to avoid paying them health care under new federal guidelines that begin Jan. 1, Chandler said it is up to the sheriff how to spend the budget that commissioners give him.
“We’re on a budget and we have to do the best with the money that we do have,” she said.
The question of whether to insure the board of elections first came before the commissioners in March 2012 when Marsilio suggested the county end the health coverage.
The four election board members — two Democrats and two Republicans — are paid $12,000 a year to approve purchases and set policy for the agency.
During the county’s debate last year, the Akron Beacon Journal surveyed boards in five counties and learned that on average, a typical board member puts in fewer than two weeks of full-time work in a year.
At the time, the cost to Portage County for covering three of the board of elections members who received it was $1,627 a month. The combined contribution of those board members toward their monthly premiums was $191.
While state law establishes the salary for board members, health care is optional, and not all counties provide it.
Marsilio asked that the tradition be ended for any new appointees to the election board, and was outvoted 2-1.
Commissioner Maureen Frederick has always supported continuing the benefit, but in August 2012, then-Commissioner Chris Smeiles had a change of heart and the issue was brought up again.
He changed his vote and ended health-care coverage for new appointees and for renewing board of election members, making the county the first in the region to end the perk.
In January, Smeiles retired from the board and was replaced by Chandler.