City workers see rising health care costs

Police no closer to pay raises; higher costs hurting department, officers say

City of Minden employees will soon see their health insurance costs on the rise.

Minden Mayor Tommy Davis cited two consecutive years of “really high” claims as the reason why prices are going up. Davis did not have exact figures available, but indicated costs would be up nearly 30 percent on employee-only plans.

“That’s for employees only,” Davis said. “Everything is a little bit different. You have employee only, then you have employee and spouse, employee and child, employee, spouse and child; it all really depends on what the claims were.”

Other coverage groups will see a price increase, but at different percentages.

Detective Ryan Barnette, closing in on his ninth year in the Minden Police Department, said he’s figured out the increase will hit him for $120 per month.
When the insurance hikes take effect in April, Barnette, one of two employees in line for a promotion, said he’ll be bringing home just $652 every two weeks to support his family of four.

For Barnette and the rest of the Minden Police Department, the rising costs deal another blow to an already disgruntled bunch of law enforcement officers over perceived low salaries.

“The problem is not the city raising insurance,” Barnette said. “The problem is salaries are already so low that families can’t afford to live on them much longer, and now they’re raising these prices. The City of Minden provides good insurance coverage, I couldn’t buy this good of coverage otherwise; but these costs are an issue as long as we fail to address police salaries.”

Davis also said the city will share in the burden of rising insurance costs. The City of Minden is self-insured through Insurance Management Administrators of Bossier City, and Davis said the city has suffered from “catastrophic” insurance against itself.

“We have carriers that once we pay out so much, the insurance picks it up, but the City of Minden pays all the claims,” Davis said. “The employee pays 25 percent of the premium and the city pays the other 75 percent; when you’re talking about it going up on the employee, it definitely goes up on the city’s side too, somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000.”

Keith King, a 15-year veteran of the Minden Police Department, expressed his frustrations, detailing how the low wages, coupled with rising insurance costs, have put stress and strain on police families.

“Anything to get the pay up would be nice,” King said. “Nothing is being done. The incentive program they are implementing is knocked out the window now that your insurance goes up $60 per check. There is a lot of things my son has asked to do or wanted to do, but I can’t because financially we just can’t afford it.”

King said several officers have looked over the city’s budget and do not understand why the city cannot afford to increase officer pay.

“If you ask the mayor and the city council they say they don’t have the money, but if you look at the budget and around the town, we’re not hurting. If you go back to when Bill Robertson was here, the town was never hurting, then he passes and suddenly we’re in the red; where did all the money go?”

Last month, several options were brought before the city council workshop to solve pay issues, such as legalizing alcohol sales within Minden’s city limits.

“I agree with it 100 percent,” King said. “Why not bring that money here and generate revenue from it?”

While the idea of alcohol within the city limits sounds like an economic driver on the surface, Davis says the city would only be able to collect 1 percent of the sales tax. Davis cited a hypothetical scenario to enforce his point.

“We’ve seen $2.5 million as a proposed revenue figure for alcohol sales,” Davis said. “Let’s pretend it was $3 million. Half of the two-percent sales tax is dedicated elsewhere, so the city only gets 1 percent; 1 percent of $3 million is only $30,000.”

Another proposal calls for the City of Minden to pay 100 percent of officers’ insurance, but Davis said that idea is off the table for now because it would subject other city employees to discrimination.

Davis said the first avenue worth exploring to generating revenue for police raises is ad valorem tax, or property tax, as it’s more commonly known.

“You can always look there, because you can dedicate that tax,” Davis said. “But the truth is, unless you raise your millage rates pretty high, it’s not that much money … Is the public willing to do that?”

The City of Minden, at its current millage rate, earns less than $450,000 per year on property tax.

Additionally, Davis said the City currently spends better than $50,000 per year on providing crossing guards at all school crossings throughout the city and for funeral processions. If the city began demanding pay for these services, Davis said there might be public backlash.

“What would the citizens reactions be?” Davis said. “I can’t answer that, but I think it would be negative, really.”

King says police officers have started talking amongst themselves about what to do if their concerns aren’t soon addressed.

“Not to put a timeframe on it, but with this memo coming down that our insurance is going up, it won’t be long,” King said. “We’re telling you we’re not making enough money to live and then you hit us with this. I’ve heard from several officers, and I don’t have their names, but because of this memo, they’re talking about leaving now.”

They’re leaving already.

Barnette said Minden has lost five officers since December: Jeremy Sitter, Brandon Coker, Shawn Jenkins, Terry Stephens and Russell Engi. All five have fled the Minden Police Department in search of better wages, and they’ve found them at places such as the Webster Parish Sheriff’s Office, Haughton Police Department, Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office, Red River Parish Sheriff’s Office and Bossier Police Department, in no order.

“We’re not losing any other city employees, we’re losing police officers,” Barnette said. “The men we’ve lost were experienced officers, capable of handling their own, having my back and training new employees. We’ve had zero qualified applicants apply to fill these vacancies and I believe that’s because of our low salaries. If we continue down this path another year or two, we’re not going to have enough officers to continue running the department.”

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