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Judges, prosecutor: Multiple offices at risk if hours cut


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Cutting hours for all of Bartholomew County’s part-time workers would hurt the courts, corrections department, extension office and other county functions, according to some county officials.

The County Council discussed a plan to reduce all part-time county employees to 25 hours a week but took no action on the plan at its Tuesday night meeting. The change was suggested so county government employees would not have to be offered insurance under provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act. The law mandates that all employees who average 30 hours a week or more must be offered health insurance.

Between 40 and 45 county employees would have their hours trimmed with a weekly 25-hour limit.

County Auditor Barb Hackman said the estimated cost to give health benefits to 40 part-time employees would be $560,000, based on a county contribution of $14,000 each to the health care trust fund. The county is self-insured but carries a catastrophic loss policy that kicks in when an employee has more than $100,000 in medical bills a year.

What’s Next

What: Bartholomew County Commissioners to discuss personnel policy changes setting part-time workers at 25 hours a week.

When: 10 a.m. Monday

Where: Commissioners chambers in the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building, 440 Third St., Columbus.

What: Bartholomew County Council work session to discuss 25-hour cap for part-time workers.

When: 6 p.m., March 4

Where: County Auditor’s Office, Governmental Office Building, 440 Third St., Columbus.

Other business

In other business, Bartholomew County Council on Tuesday night:

Approved a five-year tax abatement for George Utz Inc., in Edinburgh, a plastics manufacturer. The company plans to spend $3.2 million for injection molding and thermo-forming machines that will allow it to hire three more employees and retain 24 jobs, company officials said.

Appointed Gil Palmer to the County Board of Zoning Appeals.

Tabled three requests from county departments, seeking to make part-time employees full time. The requests were tabled until the county finishes its changes to the part-time work policies.

Two judges, the prosecutor, corrections officials and others argued that it would be more difficult to recruit, train and keep good employees if the county further reduces part-time hours. They also said it would be harder to maintain successful programs.

Superior Court I Judge James Worton said that part-time workers in the courthouse are highly trained, dedicated and trustworthy.

“Our concern is that mandating the cap at 25 hours will cut back on our ability to run as efficiently as we do at this point,” Worton said. “Our part-time employees are extremely valuable.”

Worton said the three part-time court reporters in his office make less than $12 an hour and average 28 to 32 hours a week. He said that if employees had to work less than 30 hours a week, then county department heads and elected officials should be allowed to manage their staff to meet that goal, rather than having a blanket, 25-hour cap on part-time employees.

Council President Jorge Morales suggested that the county could look into hiring more part-time workers to make up the lost hours, but Worton said that would be impractical for court, probation and corrections staff.

“These are positions that require experience ... and a lot of training,” Worton said.

Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann was in attendance to talk about a different item on the agenda, but Morales asked for his thoughts on the proposal.

Heimann said he was opposed to the plan. He said the court staff are not simply making widgets but dealing with sensitive information and a frequently hostile public.

But the larger issue for Heimann was making the change just to avoid providing health insurance for those workers. Heimann said the only reason the part-time workers in the courthouse were established as part-time employees was because of previous adjustments made to keep them from receiving health insurance.

“One of the issues I have, personally, is what is wrong with giving our fellow human beings health insurance?” Heimann said to applause from the audience of about 30 people.

“To me, this is a moral issue. That is why I didn’t want to come up here, because I didn’t want to lecture you all. You all are going to have to make decisions about this. But to me, this is a moral issue as it relates to our fellow human beings. The number-one reason for bankruptcies in this country is because people have had health problems, they have lost their job, they have lost their health insurance and they are upside down in debt. I see it every day in court.”

Prosecutor Bill Nash also was in attendance for another item on the agenda but spoke up for the court reporter who handles child-support cases, a part-time employee. He said the position is not like a temporary employee hired at a department store for the Christmas rush.

“These are people that are dealing with incredibly sensitive information,” Nash said. “They are going to see everything that is going on in this county, and they have got to be trusted not to misuse that knowledge and that information. I, as a citizen, not just as a prosecutor, would not want to know that there is this revolving door going in and out of the seats in the courtroom because we are trying to avoid paying health insurance for someone who is experienced and competent and trustworthy.”

He said it was difficult to find a court reporter who could do the job in the first place. He said he sees the change as penny wise but pound foolish.

“I will tell you that if you have to bring someone in on some days to kick her out of her seat, just so we can avoid paying her health insurance, the quality of our entire system will be significantly degraded by that,” Nash said.

Councilman Ryan Lauer said the county should consider ending health insurance for part-time elected officials such as the Council and County Commissioners. He said that would free up money that could be used to offer health insurance to some part-time employees.

Pat McClendon of Faith Ministries and Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships for Columbus Regional Health, said they have been working with part-time employees in the Purdue Cooperative Extension Office on several health education initiatives and those classes would have to end if the employees were cut to 25 hours a week.

County Council did not vote on the hours cap because it was only a discussion item on the agenda. However, to meet federal guidelines for a six-month lookback window to determine average hours, they said the decision would have to be made at or before the Council’s May meeting.

Council members decided to invite officeholders and department heads to the County Council’s March 4 work session to discuss the issue further. The auditor’s office will send out letters to the department heads and officeholders specifically telling them that the change would affect the hours for part-time employees in their offices.

County Commissioners also are scheduled to consider a change to the county personnel policies that would describe what constitutes part-time workers.

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