County reaffirms health care benefits

MARQUETTE – The Marquette County Board Tuesday revisited a motion from late December reaffirming that the vote taken ended lifetime health care coverage for new county commissioners effective Jan. 1.

Commissioner Gregory Seppanen, the sole commissioner to so far be affected by the change, had wanted the motion’s intention clarified and he asked the issue be put on Tuesday’s regular meeting agenda.

“One of my campaign issues was to work to end the practice of full-time health benefits for part-time county commissioners,” Seppanen said.

Seppanen said the county personnel policy states part-time employees are to receive group health coverage based on a pro-rated basis of their hours worked. To gain this option an employee must work at half-time level or more.

Seppanen said he talked to the current board and had asked them to end health care coverage for all new incoming county commissioners, beginning Jan. 1. Members said they had voted Dec. 18 to end the lifetime health care coverage for new county commissioners.

Reviewing the motion Tuesday with county legal counsel, that intent was unclear.

During the Dec. 18 meeting, the board approved changes for non-represented employees at the county. Non-union workers were offered a 2 percent pay increase, and “for new hires beginning Jan. 1, a $2,000 annual contribution to a healthcare savings plan in lieu of post-employment healthcare.”

A provision was included that no employee with a spouse also employed by the county would receive both health care benefits, as well as the opt-out payment.

Elected official salaries were set last April and the county board has not had a pay raise since 1988. So the salary increase part of the motion did not apply to them.

However, commissioners were under the impression they had voted intending the health care provisions for new non-represented employees would affect new county commissioners too.

Commissioner Deborah Pellow said in past practice beyond salaries, all benefits changes for non-represented employees extended to county commissioners.

“That’s what’s always been done since I’ve been here and before,” Pellow said.

County civil counsel Stephen Adamini said the board believed that was the case when it voted on the motion, though the motion did not specifically mention elected officials.

“There is some ambiguity to that,” Adamini said.

Adamini agreed with Seppanen that in the future, language on benefits for elected officials should be clearer. No new motion was made Tuesday.

Adamini clarified some other compensation details for the board. He said “compensation” means the total economic benefits for an employee or official, including salary, pension and fringe benefits.

Under state law, salaries for elected officials must be set before Nov. 1 each year. Those salaries cannot be lowered during the term of office, but can be raised.

Under the state constitution, pension benefits accrued and vested cannot be diminished.

Adamini said other benefits, including health care, mileage, et cetera can present a gray area. Some benefits may be the subject of contractual obligations and may extend only for a discreet period of time. In other cases, longstanding past practice could equate to an obligation.

Depending on the circumstances, Adamini said fringe benefits could be altered at any time, last only for a term of office or continue with no alteration permitted.

“There are opinions and decisions that go all over on these,” Adamini said.

Adamini said it is possible for commissioners on the board to have benefits packages of varying amounts because some could hold prior benefits, which have since been discontinued prospectively, affecting only newer members of the panel.

Seppanen said he intends to revisit county commissioner compensation during budget sessions later in the year.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.