Commissioners approve modified 2013 budget

No action taken on health insurance bid protest

Augusta commissioners approved a modified version of the city administrator’s 2013 budget proposal Tuesday that excluded several new positions, a $750-per-employee raise and a new 1 percent excise tax Fred Russell recommended.

“There seems to be a movement to take some of the things that I have on it out,” Russell said before the 9-0 vote. Commissioner Matt Aitken was absent.

The decision allows Russell, commissioners and the mayor “additional time” to discuss the items taken out, he said.

“Good luck in January, fellows,” said Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles, whose term, along with those of Commissioners Jerry Brigham and J.R. Hatney and potentially, Aitken, will end before budget discussions resume.

“The new commission is going to have a lot of tough decisions to make,” Brigham said.

Left out Tuesday were Russell’s recommendation that the city hire a retail development specialist, a contract compliance specialist and two marshals to enforce parking downtown as well as a couple of dozen other new hires requested by the city attorney, tax assessor, tax commissioner, procurement, superior court, district attorney, probate court and public defender. Russell said several positions at Augusta Regional Airport were required by federal law, and they were left in.

The excise tax, a new 1 percent levy to replace sales taxes lost under a new state exemption for energy used in manufacturing, had been opposed by the Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce and area factories but was expected to generate $500,000.

Even with the exclusions, the budget will rely on a dip into the city’s savings of more than $1 million. The flat-rate raises, expected to go into effect in July, would have cost more than $2 million.

Russell’s proposal included about $4.5 million from reserves, which currently stand at nearly $35 million.

The nearly $700 million proposal includes $57 million for the sheriff’s office and about $80 million in other general fund expenditures that the commission can control.

In other business, the commission chose neither to approve nor deny Russell’s recommendation the body deny a bid protest filed by Meritain Health Inc. The company is challenging the commission’s decision to award a bid to administer a new self-funded health insurance pool to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia.

Meritain, a subsidiary of Aetna, said the city procurement office gave Meritain the highest score in technical rankings, then made errors and withheld needed information when seeking price quotes. The procurement office denied the allegations, and city insurance consultant Lisa Kelley said Blue Cross Blue Shield had presented the lowest maximum price with the level of risk appropriate for a city transitioning to a self-funded platform.

Brigham said if the city is making changes to its health insurance plan commissioners may need to revisit the budget sooner than the new year.

“I know we’ve got to have health insurance come the first of the year,” he said.

Meritain attorney Jeff Belkin and an elevator full of Aetna officials who attended Tuesday’s meeting declined to comment on their next step. Brigham said he thought the city will be sued over the bid award regardless.

City General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said the lack of approval or disapproval means there is a stay on the BCBS contract. Russell could rescind the stay, however, MacKenzie said.

Committee leaves decision on health insurance bid dispute to full commission
Proposed city budget includes $4.5 million from reserves
Fred Russell to present balanced budget to commissioners
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