The Bay County commission's plan to seek legislative action on Bay Medical's employee pension has left hospital trustees questioning the county's motive, but willing to end the dispute.
Although the two sides appear to be miles apart on pension issues, the chairman of the Bay Health Foundation wants to work out a compromise. "I would like to get this over with," Don Connor said.
Commissioners view a recent opinion by Florida's Attorney General as proof county taxpayers will be liable for pension payouts if the special district that governs the hospital ever dissolves; however, Bay Health Foundation trustees and their legal counsel interpret the opinion differently.
On Tuesday, commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution asking the local legislative delegation – comprised of Representatives Jimmy Patronis and Marti Coley and Senator Don Gaetz – to back an amendment to the act that created the special district and place the pension in an irrevocable trust.
"We feel we have a liability there on behalf of the county commission [and] the taxpayers of Bay County," Commissioner Guy Tunnell said. "I think it's something that we needed to take action on."
The vote came despite indications that a deal was imminent; but, faced with a deadline to submit paperwork and no more meetings scheduled until after the deadline, the board adopted the resolution as a backup. "We can always undo it," Commissioner George Gainer said before the vote. "We have a narrow window of time here that we've got to perform in so I think it would be wise to move forward."
Foundation chairman Don Connor said Wednesday that the commission's action was unnecessary. "We're certainly disappointed that they chose that route," Connor said. "We don't think it's something that's going to help anybody."
Connor said no trustees attended the commission meeting because they thought they had reached an agreement that would resolve the issue. "Some of our people had talked to Commissioner Gainer and other commissioners and they all felt that was doable and that was what was going to happen," Connor said. "We thought we had a transaction that could be completed off line."
According to Connor, the pension has about 1,800 participants and is funded at $94 million. The unfunded liability – previously estimated at $15 million – is down to about $9 million due to high returns on investments, Connor said.
The foundation has untapped reserve funds of $14 million, Connor said, but doesn't think it makes financial sense to fully fund the program. "We actually go beyond the point of caution, he said. "We chose that path because we think it's the right thing to do and we've actually done more than the actuary has recommended."
But county commissioners aren't convinced and are worried that recent layoffs at Bay Medical – 58 employees lost their jobs last week – could put new pressure on the pension fund. "If it's okay, then let's prove that," George Gainer said. "Let's monitor it and make sure that it remains okay and let's do that so that we don't run out of money in the meantime."
The county has already forwarded a draft of the proposed legislation setting up an irrevocable trust to Representative Patronis' office. In reads, in part: "The assets and liabilities of the Bay Medical Center Pension Plan shall be under the ultimate control of the board of trustees of said Pension Plan, and shall not be the responsibility of any governmental unit."
Connor said the proposal doesn't clarify who will hold and manage the pension. "It's got to be something far more definitive," Connor said."That's not worth even reading."
It's possible that the legislation won't even move forward. Gainer said he would support withdrawing the proposal if the foundation allows a commissioner to fill a seat on the foundation's board.
Connor is looking for a win-win resolution to the impasse. "We can certainly take care of their needs as far as a commissioner of their choice on our board and I would hope they could take care of our needs by staying away from our pension plan," Connor said.
The legislative delegation is scheduled to meet on December 5.
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