By Dave Rogers

For The Record

Orange County commissioners took a future whack at rapidly rising employee health insurance costs Tuesday by taking a present-day chainsaw to the county’s contributions for future hires.

But before they took a bite out of future costs, they sailed through a $5,000 allocation to replace a courtroom’s audio-visual equipment and agreed to dangle $100,000 of hotel occupancy tax funds to hook a fishing tournament with a possible economic benefit of $2 million.

By unanimous votes of 5-0, the court voted Tuesday that for employees hiring on after the start of the 2017-18 budget year, on Oct. 1, 2017: that it would continue to pay 100 percent for employee health insurance but contribute nothing toward dependent health insurance premiums.

The county pays 40 percent for the 166 current employees who choose dependent health care.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton noted that Jefferson County and most area cities had ceased contributing for new employees’ dependent and retiree insurance costs.

He said his calculations showed the county could save an estimated $33,000 next year with the cut and a total of $47.7 million over the next 28 years.

“Everybody is looking for some type of solution because this is getting out of control,” Commissioner Barry Burton said of health insurance costs.

Carlton related that an official from an unnamed nearby city – it was Shawn Oubre, city manager for the city of Orange – had mentioned recently that the city’s first attempt to bid for 2017-18 employee insurance had come back with a 36-percent increase.

“Unfortunately, the cost of healthcare is out of control,” Carlton said. “We certainly can’t sustain it to the level we have.”

Commissioners next tackled the county’s contribution to health insurance for mid-21st century retirees – those who weren’t even hired until at least Oct. 1.

Carlton resubmitted a motion he offered in May, that future hires would get no county help on insurance after retirement. Again, the vote was 3-2 against, with only Commissioner Jody Crump going along.

Then Burton offered his take, proposing the county pay 100 percent of retirees’ age 60-65 health insurance for new hires who worked for the county at least through the age of 60 and totaled at least 80 for the aggregate of age and years of county employment.

At age 65, the future hires would be eligible for Medicare under current laws.

The vote was 4-1 in favor, with Crump the only no vote.

“The retirement portion of that, I just believe it’s an unsustainable expense,” the Precinct 4 commissioner said, explaining his no vote.

Ida Schossow, President of the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce, requested $100,000 of hotel occupancy tax money to help entice a national fishing tournament for the spring of 2018.

She said the fishing tournament “was a name that cannot be named” until the organization sanctioning the tournament announced its schedule in the fall.

“The information we’ve been given is that we can expect an economic return of between $1.1 million and $2.1 million,” Schossow said.

While she said economic benefit numbers were still being compiled for the June 15-17 Bassmaster Open, Commissioner John Gothia, who was co-chairman of the tournament, guessed its economic benefit would be about $2 million to the Orange area.

Since the city began hosting big bass tournaments in 2013, chamber officials have maintained they are economic development events geared as much to bring new businesses to the area as to entertain.

The motion to approve the request passed unanimously.

“It’s absolutely a great way to showcase the area,” Schossow said. “None of this is about fishing. It’s about selling your community.”

After opening the two-hour meeting by “paying the bills” — $686,410 worth – commissioners gave another 5-0 vote to the “no more than $5,000” request to purchase and install new audio and video equipment in the $128th District Court.

Judge Courtney Arkeen rushed over from the courthouse to explain her need, but the motion passed before she arrived.

In February, commissioners OK’d a $180,000 budget transfer to purchase a 70-inch television for the $260th District Court.

Also Tuesday, commissioners added a 14th paid holiday for county employees in 2017-18, Texas Independence Day, Friday, March 2.